I was in a teambuilding session earlier this week, leading an exercise in “balancing inquiry and advocacy”.  If you’re not familiar with the work of Peter Senge, this concept involves getting people to balance two crucial dialogue skills:

1.  Asking questions and actively listening in order to understand the perspective of others on an issue (and to understand them from their own frame of reference rather than our own, as in Covey’s “seek first to understand”).

2.  Clearing explaining your reasoning and intent in order to advocate for your own position on an issue.

For many of us, it’s the skill of inquiry that is often lacking and so that’s where I tend to focus during a workshop.

This group was interesting.  I asked them where they thought we needed to focus, and they said, “We need to get better at advocacy.  We need to be more persuasive when communicating up the chain.”  Most of them said they thought they were pretty good at inquiry already.

So we tried a little exercise.  I gave them a hot workplace issue to talk about, and they paired up.  Half of them discussed the issue and the other half acted as observers to give feedback on the effectiveness of each person’s dialogue skills.  Their goal was not to solve the issue, but to demonstrate the skills of both inquiry and advocacy.

When they were done, I couldn’t help but make the observation to them that I hadn’t heard anyone ask a single question.  From my perspective there was no inquiry practiced at all.  They protested that the exercise was too contrived, and that they had an issue to talk about which they couldn’t solve and therefore they were just venting.   They also said that emotions ran high on the topic.  These were valid points, yet I still felt we needed to work on the skill of inquiry.  Situations in which emotions run high are exactly the sorts of situations where we need to practice inquiry and active listening, I pointed out to them.

What to do now?  If I insisted that I knew better than they did what we should work on, I was surely not practicing what I was preaching.  If I shifted our focus to what they had requested and gave them a model for persuasive presentation skills, we would miss the boat not only on what I felt would give them the  best return on their investment of time, but also on what I had been hired by their leadership team to deliver.

In the end, I compromised and we managed to squeeze in a little of both topics.  But it made me think about why we tend to be so bad at inquiry–often so bad that we don’t even recognize that we’re bad at it.  Is it a cultural construct, in a culture where assertiveness and achievement are prized?  Is it that our educational system somehow doesn’t teach us to value inquiry?  Or does it simply have to do with human or organizational psychology?  What do you think?


  1. We see the same trend in our work, Anna, so you are not alone. Advocacy, as you have clearly identified, has become more than an art, it’s a science…. And our culture, in exalting advocacy, has created polarization in politics and society in general. We all see this and know it doesn’t work, and yet still operate in advocacy mode.

    While we need to be clear about our intention, we also need to be in relationship with others (a two-way, not a one-way, relationship). That means, as you have pointed out, inquiry-based conversations, and I’d even take it a step further to say, appreciative inquiry-based conversations.

    Essentially, advocacy is another form of wanting someone else to want what we want. Our challenge is to teach others that this doesn’t get us what we really want. We simply can’t out think everyone with our rational and emotional appeals. The only way to connect with others and have them listen to us is to listen to them, understand their perspective, and integrate the two views into one that has a common goal we can both agree to.

  2. Anna, I’m thinking that the resistance of your students to the agenda of learning how to inquire more effectively may indicate that they and their managers have a different view of what stands in the way of the organization improving. In other words, the managers think the students don’t listen and they think the managers don’t listen to put it crudely. This would lead me to inquire if this is accurate and if so what to do about it. I believe this action would be congruent with your values of combining advocacy and inquiry, which I also support and practice.

    By the way, Roger Schwarz Associates who incorporate this guideline into their work have reworded it as “Combine stating your views and asking genuine questions.” which I find is a bit more accessible to people not in our field. Check him out at http://www.schwarzassociates.com

  3. Nicole and Emily, thank you both for your thoughtful comments. I like the idea of re-wording inquiry in a more accessible way, thanks for passing along that thought!