How many discussions did you have this week that you felt were a poor use of your time? 2? 4? 6? 10? Ouch!
Many discussions don’t leverage the minds in the room well because of the way statements and questions are framed. Rather than enhancing the discussion, what occurs is disengagement, or worse, a battle of words.
There are two simple ways to increase the engagement and critical thinking of your discussions: set the context and expectation in the beginning and balance the amount of advocacy and inquiry throughout the discussion. As simple as these approaches are, they often are not done.
Set the context and expectation from the beginning.
Start any discussion with something along the lines of “Here’s the problem or issue we need to discuss and address, and I need your help to achieve X. I’d like all of us to make an effort to take on a mindset of curiosity, learning, and consideration as we explore and create together.”
Consider this opening sentence as your “Hello” to the discussion and a way to bring participants’ attention together. I know it seems ridiculously simple or hokey, but I (and likely you) have been part of too many discussions where this very small and important “stage setting” does not take place.
Balance advocacy and inquiry.
One of the greatest shortcomings I’ve seen and experienced is an imbalance between advocacy and inquiry. Advocacy is making the case for your own or another’s perspective; inquiry is about uncovering and learning about another’s perspective or suggestion.
It is in the framing of the statements and questions that either heightens the discussion and problem solving or shuts it down. Additionally, too much advocacy feels like a sales pitch and power play, diminishing listening, learning, and co-creation.
The right balance is 25% advocacy and 75% inquiry – not the other way around.
The Fifth Discipline Field Book offers sage guidance about how to advocate better and be a better inquirer. By framing your advocating and inquiring differently, you invite others to consider, reflect, contribute, and build more effectively. Below are some suggestions for improving advocacy and inquiry in your discussions. See what resonates with you.
Advocacy – Make your thinking process visible.
- Share your assumptions and describe the data that lead to them. “Here’s what I think and here’s how I got there.”
- Explain your assumptions. “I assumed that…”
- Make your reasoning explicit. “I drew this conclusion because…”
- Give examples of what you propose, even if hypothetical or metaphorical. “Here’s an example. Imagine that you are a member who will be affected…”
- Reveal where you are least clear in your thinking. “Here’s one aspect which you might help me think through.”
- Listen, stay open, explore, and encourage others to provide different views (even when advocating). “Do you see it differently and if so, in what way?”
Inquiry – Asking others to make their thinking process visible.
- Gently find out the data from which they are operating.“What (data/info) leads you to that conclusion?” “What causes you to say that?”
- Ask in ways that don’t promote defensiveness.“Can you help me understand your thinking here?” instead of “What do you mean?”
- Draw out their reasoning. “What’s the impact of the solutions for you? How does this relate to your concerns?” “Where does your reasoning go next?”
- Explain your reasons for inquiring and how your inquiry relates to your own concerns, hopes, and needs. “I’m asking about your assumptions because…”
- Assess what they say by asking for broader contexts or examples.“How would your proposal affect…?” “Is this similar to…?” Can you describe an example…?”
- Check your understanding of what has been said. “Am I correct that you’re saying…?”
Reality Check: How many of these ways for advocating and inquiring productively do you practice regularly? How often do you see your teams, colleagues, superiors collaborate in this way? If the answer is not often, then it’s time to change the way you participate in and lead your discussions.
Be the model for all those you work with to follow.
Your Next Step: Choose one technique from the advocacy list and two techniques from the inquiry list to use in your next discussions. Use them over and over until they come more naturally for you. Then select a few more of the techniques. Practice makes permanent.
I encourage you to share the guidance with your participants, so you’ll collectively nurture and own the quality of your discussions.
Best wishes for engaging and productive discussions.
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