One of my favorite topics to teach, in any teambuilding, leadership or communication skill-related class, is Peter Senge’s concept of balancing advocacy and inquiry in conversation.  Advocacy means explaining one’s own thinking and reasoning while advocating for a position, rather than keeping hidden agendas and withholding relevant information.  And even more importantly, inquiry means spending at least as much time, if not more, asking good questions and actively listening in order to understand another person’s position or perspective on the issue.

Personally, I have a long way to go in skillfully achieving this balance in my own conversations.  I do well with sharing relevant information but I need to work on my inquiry skills.  But where I really get frustrated is in dealing with personality types who are uncomfortable with any type of conflict or disagreement and prefer to avoid it altogether. What do you do when someone just doesn’t want to discuss the issue?  They don’t want to listen to you explaining your own position, and they don’t respond to your attempts to get them to explain their own.

I think I understand why they do this.  It’s not about being cowardly or self-serving.  For some people, to discuss a conflict is to dignify and perhaps magnify something they feel is unproductive, damaging, or maybe just trivial.  They believe it is better to hold their tongues and let the problem work itself out or just go away.

But problems and issues don’t usually just go away, especially interpersonal problems.  When someone ignores them, especially someone in a leadership position, problems simply seek alternative outlets.  Or they fester and grow.

I struggle with how to use the idea of inquiry and advocacy to take on the very concept of conflict resolution with folks who prefer to avoid rather than tackle.  How do you show respect for their preferences and still advocate for the view that many (most?) conflicts must be dealt with?  More importantly, how do you stop them from simply shutting down and walking away from the very conversation?  I’d like to hear your thoughts.


  1. PerformancePI

    Advocacy and inquiry are about building relationships through communication. It can be important to acknowledge that non-communication is a communication. It may be communication that one is not ready… might not have fully developed their own ideas or may not yet trust the group and the process.

    Facilitating advocacy and inquiry demands that the facilitator structure the process for trust first and communication second. One of my favorite ways to do this is to take the group on a guided visioning exercise.

    Close your eyes. Relax. Remember lying in bed in that state of total relaxation where you’re just beginning to wake up but aren’t ready to move yet. [pause] Now, remember that today was a special day with a mix of vacation and fun and new ideas. In your mind, stretch and get out bed. Choose a special outfit for this unique day. Pick out hat, shoes or something that is uniquely special for the day. [pause] Eat a leisurely breakfast. Look out the window and see your car. It’s a special car — the one you’ve always wanted. See the model, the color, the details. [Pause] Jump in and drive off to a special place. Notice the wind, the light, the colors, the scents. [Pause] Pull over the side of the road to pick up a passenger. Today your passenger will someone whose wisdom you value. See that person greeting you and getting into your car. [Pause] Drive with them to your special spot. Take out a special meal just for the two of you that has been in the back of the car. As you eat notice the textures and tastes and smells of the food, the air, your special spot. [pause] Ask your guest to share a piece of wisdom with you that will help you with your work or life today. [pause] Pack up the meal and your guest. Return them to their home as the sunsets brilliantly. Return home. Sit by the fire or watch the stars and relax as you review the high points of the day. [pause] Breathe in and out three times. Then return to the group ready to participate. Open your eyes when you are ready. [pause… wait for each person to rejoin the group… if necessary repeat the breathe in and out and open your eyes part, if someone is slow to return.]

    Now, debrief the exercise by having everyone share the choice of special accessory for the day, the make and color of their car, the person they picked up, where they went, what they had for their meal and the advice that their wise guest shared with them.

    Make sure that everyone gets a chance to speak here. Start with someone is not in authority but who is confident speaking. It helps if that person is next to someone who is not very comfortable speaking. Move to that person next. Then keep moving in a circle until everyone has spoken. (If possible, keep the most powerful authority person for about 2/3rds of way through the discussion and keep the least powerful person before that power-person. This keeps power in perspective.)

    Then move into the business discussions. I find that, having done this vision walk and self-advocacy talk on something non-threatening helps the business discussion. Yes, for 20 people, this will take an hour. However, having heard something fun from everyone (accessory or car) and something insightful (special place, wisdom guest, and wisdom guest’s advice), everyone tends to be more respectful of each other and tends to be supportive of each other’s insights. It becomes easier to inquire after someone’s perspective when you’ve already enjoyed their perspective in this exercise.

    It’s an amazing tool… though time consuming. However, in terms of leadership, it can be very important to spent that time in order to deal with the differences in power in a “soft” way… to show the group that everyone has useful insights regardless of job title.

    I’ve used this with groups of leaders where the mix ranged front-line supervisors to senior executives. It’s a great group starter that then allows the group to tackle something more complex like “what is leadership” or “creating vision and value” or “strategic planning”.

    The thing we often forget in trying to facilitate advocacy and inquiry is that we must model the the both the advocacy and the inquiry… the minute we move into instructor-mode, we break the advocacy/inquirty mode. So, the whole session (or series of sessions) has to be built around advocacy/inquiry. It’s helpful to have at 2 hours for this… one to start the model and one to discuss the “learning” topic or business issue.

    Good luck. It’s a great tool and one that we all benefit from both practicing and participating in.

  2. Thank you for that, sounds like a great exercise! Could be very useful for a training session, although the post was really about dealing with a conflict avoider in my personal life. Any suggestions for a situation in which there are no meetings or other formal structures to use?