Come on down

28 Jan

“Being charismatic and wrong is a really bad combination.” – Jim Collins

This post is about questions. There aren’t enough questions being asked and those that are asked are often really statements disguised as questions. I don’t hear (or say) “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure” nearly enough. Answers and solutions are praise worthy; questions to ensure a problem is defined, not so much. I’ll share a few different ideas related to questioning in posts to come.

A lesson I learned from Jim Tull has really influenced how I think about learning, persuasion and influence. Jim presented Argyris‘s Ladder of Inference as a way to model situations where you’re trying to reach agreement. Imagine an issue you have very strong beliefs and opinions about. If you apply the Ladder of Inference to your situation, when it comes to this topic, you are at the top of your ladder. You act based on these beliefs and you feel good about it. You’re living your values. Then, you’re confronted with a person or situation that challenges your “position” on the issue. They’re on the top of another ladder. To reach agreement – which yields benefit you want – you need to get on the same ladder. So if an agreement is to be reached, either someone’s changing ladders or you’re both going to move to a third ladder. Otherwise, no agreement. So how do you go about this process of determining who’s switching ladders, where to build a shared ladder, or deciding that your position is more valuable than the benefit?

Questions of Inquiry vs. Questions of Advocacy

It turns out that most people try to accomplish this challenge from the top of their ladder – using advocacy – the equivalent of suggesting the person leap from the top of their ladder to the right ladder, your ladder. Advocacy develops a position (or moves up the ladder) and consequently, strengthens the attachment of other parties to their position(s). The skill is to go down the ladder – using inquiry. Inquiry is based in questions about what others believe to move down the ladder. This is not a new obscure idea. Stephen Covey has popularized the principle (Habit 5) “Seek first to understand and then to be understood.” Once you’re down you’re ladder, you can learn and understand their “data,” interest, rationale, etc. and also review your own. Without inquiry, we cannot empathize. Without feeling understood, you are much less likely to find mutual purpose. And, without mutual purpose, you’re not likely to reach an agreement or solution. If we have no agreement on the problem (shared purpose), we will most likely not agree on the solution (shared benefit).

Curiosity of how others form their positions and how their interests are served by maintaining these positions is undervalued and underutilized. It really doesn’t follow the social order, making it that much more powerful and differentiating for the skilled. Why is inquiry not practiced more? Perhaps:

1. an attempt to appear confident and of strong conviction in your position due fear of being taken advantage of or belief that seeking to understand will bring you to a less powerful position (fear or lack of confidence)

2. seeing situations at hand as zero-sum (bad logic or bad motive)

3. lack the skill to explore your and others’ positions and seek mutual benefit (ignorance)

Being interested is often more persuasive than being interesting. When someone truly feels that you understand them, yet still do not draw the same conclusions and agree with them, the natural response is curiosity. What additional information do you have? How are you ending up somewhere else? This is the time for advocacy. You are now serving their need and not your own. You don’t concede your position (or values / beliefs) by working to understand others’ positions and how they arrived at them. You can always climb back up. Though, be forewarned, you may learn something that will cause you to choose not to.

Additional Reference:


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