Achieving Skillful Discussion by Balancing Inquiry and Advocacy

By Guest Blogger

Roger Hoffmann

VP of Technology Operations at HauteLook (Nordstrom)

(Roger’s previous blogs on this site include “The Meaning of Work in Japan” and “Yin and Yang – Finding Your Leadership Balance”

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In my current role a technology VP, my schedule seems to consist mostly of meetings and discussions.  Sometimes my day is double and triple booked with up to 15 or more appointments.  During a recent meeting of about 15 people, including two other VPs, I lost my cool.  I was not happy with the direction of the discussion and instead of calmly exploring the impasse, I let my emotions get the best of me and became angry and upset.  I lost my balance.

How many times have you been in a meeting or group discussion and found yourself thinking with frustration “We’re getting nowhere fast”?  Or perhaps done some mental math on the cost of the meeting?  By contrast, recall a discussion where clarity was achieved and the meeting objectives were met.  What happened that made the first scenario bomb and the second encounter have a highly productive outcome? One of the keys to having skillful discussions lies in the group finding a healthy balance between inquiry and advocacy.

  • Inquiry: A close examination of a matter in a search for information or truth.
  • Advocacy: The act of pleading or arguing in favor of something.

Focus and Balance

The focus of inquiry is discovery, exploration, asking lots of questions in an attempt to understand others points of view.  The focus of advocacy is making assertions, stating opinions and reasoning, declaring your point of view in an attempt to get others to understand you.  Skillfull discussion requires a balance of both.

Dysfunctional Behaviors

When inquiry and advocacy are understood and employed in the pursuit of productive communication they are very powerful.  But they are not balanced, four distinct dysfunctional behaviors soon emerge.

  1. If advocacy and inquiry are both low or absent, the dysfunctional behavior that emerges is called withdrawing, which occurs when members of the group mentally check out and stop paying attention.
  2. If advocacy is extremely high and inquiry is too low, the dysfunctional behavior that emerges is called dictating, which occurs when an overly forceful member of the group basically resorts to “Here’s what I say and never mind why”.
  3. If inquiry is extremely high and advocacy is too low, the dysfunctional behavior that emerges is called, interrogating which occurs when members of the group resort to “Why can’t you see that your point of view is wrong?”
  4. If inquiry and advocacy are both too strong, the dysfunctional behavior that emerges is called politicking, which occurs when members of the group give the impression of balance while actually being closed minded while pushing their own agenda.

In balancing inquiry and advocacy, it is important that we lay out our reasoning and thinking, and then encourage others to challenge us.  Statements (advocacy) and questions (inquiry) that facilitate this balance include: “Here’s my view and here is how I arrived at it.  How does it sound to you?” “What makes sense to you and what doesn’t?  Do you see any ways I can improve it?” While hard on people’s cherished opinions, more creative and insightful realizations occur when people combine multiple perspectives.  Let’s look at how to achieve skillful discussion and how it differs from dialog.

Skillful Discussion

In dialog, the intention is exploration, discovery and insight.  Along that path, the team may in fact sometimes reach some agreement and make a decision—but that isn’t their primary purpose in coming together.  Dialog involves divergent brainstorming type communication. In skillful discussion, the intention is to come to some sort of closure.  Along the way, the team may explore new issues and build some deeper meaning among the members, but their intent involves convergent thinking.  Skillful discussion hinges on attaining a specific outcome, usually an important decision that the team needs to make in order to achieve the meeting objective. Skillful discussion is based on an agreement, which team members make: to follow five basic protocols.  The protocols are clear and not difficult to grasp, but they require practice.

  • Pay attention to your intentions

Clarify what you hope to accomplish in the discussion.at hand.  Ask yourself “What is my intention?” and “Am I willing to be influenced?” If you are not, what is the purpose of the conversation?  Be clear on what you want and do not mislead others as to your intentions.

  • Balance advocacy with inquiry

Ensure that the pendulum of advocacy and inquiry remains balanced and does not swing too far to either side.  Surface and challenge assumptions with honesty and integrity.  Avoid a lack of balance which causes misunderstanding, miscommunication and poor decisions.

  • Build shared meaning

Words are abstractions and have different meanings for different people.  In many meetings, the discussion moves at such a pace and people use words so loosely, that it becomes very hard to build shared meaning.  People walk away with vague ambiguous misunderstandings.  Decisions made in such an environment won’t stick.  It is important to use language with great precision, taking care to make the meaning evident.  If the word is important to you, then converge on the meaning with as much precision as possible.

  • Use self-awareness as a resource

Ask yourself, at moments when you are confused, angry, frustrated, concerned, or troubled, What is happening right now?  What do I want right now?  What am I doing right now to prevent myself from getting what I want?  What am I thinking right now?  What am I feeling right now?  Then choose your response accordingly.

  • Explore impasses.

Ask yourself: What do we agree on and what do we disagree on?  Can we pinpoint the source of the disagreement or impasse?  Which category does the impasse fall into?

  1. Facts – what exactly has happened?  What is the data?
  2. Methods – how should we do what we need to do?  Is there only one right way?
  3. Goals – what is our objective?  Is it consistent with our vision?
  4. Values – why do we think it must be done in a particular way?  What do we believe in?

Simply agreeing on the source of the disagreement often allows people to learn more about the situation, clarify assumptions that previously were below awareness, and move forward. Remember to listen to ideas as if for the first time.  Work at being open to new ideas.  Consider each person’s mental model as a piece of a larger puzzle.  Look at the issue from the other person’s perspective.  Ask yourself (and everyone else):  What do we need to do to move forward?

Conclusion

The meeting I referred to in my opening example could have gone very differently.  At the moment I felt my frustration rising, I could have asked myself what I needed to do to find balance.  If I had used the fifth protocol mentioned above (using self-awareness as a resource) and explained my position, asking for feedback in an open and calm manner, I’m sure I could have achieved the skillful discussion needed to achieve the objective at hand.

Reflect

Which of those protocols resonates with you the most?  Which comes naturally and which seems beyond your reach?  What could you do to strengthen your skillful discussion muscles?  What concrete action will you commit to this week, however small, to become a more effective team member?

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About cedricj

I am a licensed psychologist and management consultant and have always been intrigued by how leaders can inspire people in their organizations. The bottom line is that people are not always motivated by material rewards, the use of the carrot or the stick, fear and intimidation,and command and control, Five human needs inspire and drive us. Kristine S MacKain, Ph.D and myself describe these inspirational forces in our book "What Inspirational Leaders Do" (Kindle 2008)
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