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By Fred Kofman
Philosopher and Vice President at Linkedin

“Make him right
before you make him wrong.”

Productive inquiry is a way to learn about your colleague’s reasoning. It helps him express what he’s thinking, but more importantly, it allows him to share why he’s thinking what he’s thinking, and what he would like to do about it.

You can think of these three aspects of inquiry as points in time:

  • The present: What (do you think?)
  • The past: Why (do you think it?)
  • The future: So what (do we do about it?)

If you ask these questions in an appreciative mode, you will help your colleague reveal his full reasoning, to go down his ladder of inference. That will allow you to understand him at a much deeper level.

Productive inquiry requires appreciation. Unless you allow yourself to understand how your colleague’s reasoning is “right” –that is, his ideas make sense within his worldview– you won’t work with him as effectively as you could. You might still get the job done, but the two of you will neither grow closer nor wiser.

Even if he’s 99% wrong, there’s always a kernel of truth that you can appreciate. This core truth can serve as a foundation for both of you to build together a more inclusive and truthful perspective, which will lead to a more effective and bought-in solution.

Do You Want To Be Right Or Do You Want To Be Effective?

The core of productive inquiry is not a technique, but an attitude. Productive inquiry requires a profound curiosity, a commitment to understanding the context in which your colleague’s ideas fit. This, in turn, requires a strong desire to discover his world with appreciation and respect.

Your ability to pay attention is inversely proportional to your need to be right. The more concerned you are about proving you are right, the less patience you have to inquire into and truly hear what your colleague has to say. The less he feels received and appreciated, the less he will be willing to listen to you and engage in a productive conversation.

Here are a three distinctions to keep in mind when you practice productive inquiry:

Clarifying is not conceding: You may worry that listening and asking clarifying questions means that you are conceding the point. This is not the case. Moreover, by getting clear of the other’s position you can challenge it more intelligently and constructively. Even if your counterpart assumes that it is, you can simply state, “Now that I’ve understood you clearly, I’d like to explain where I agree and where I disagree with your view.”

Understanding is not undermining: You may be tempted to use inquiry to prove you are right and others are wrong. Resist. Ask open-ended questions that support your counterpart’s expression. Remember that you may not know all the facts and the reasoning that lead to his conclusion. You could ask questions such as, “What leads you to think that (…)?” or, “How did you reach that conclusion?” or, “How do you see such course of action helping us to accomplish our goal?”

Comprehending is not counter-arguing: You may transition from inquiring to counter-arguing without your counterpart’s consent. Restrain yourself. Make sure she has finished expressing her position before you present disconfirming information or challenge her conclusions. You can say, for example, “I’d like to show you some information that you haven’t taken into account. Are we ready to move to a dialog, or are there other things you’d like to present first?”

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