In ways that are often self-interested and counterproductive.

Why do I keep banging on about inquiry (i.e., asking good questions rather than advocating an opinion or advice)?  Because it’s so important and we’re  so bad at it.

I still remember the first time I tracked dialogue in a group of lawyer-leaders.   I was working with an executive leadership team in a global law firm and had recommended they read William Noonan’s fantastic article, “Discussing the Undiscussable: Overcoming Defensive Routines in the Workplace,” Harv Bus Rev (May 2011). I was observing one of their meetings and decided to get some data to support my belief that the biggest thing holding them back was the quality of their dialogue.  I drew a 4-box matrix in my notepad and categorized every contribution for an afternoon.  Above is a photo of that page.

I have been doing this with groups of lawyers ever since and the results are incredibly consistent.  Around 90% of all contributions on any topic are advocacy from orientation-to-self.  Inquiry is used less than 10% of the time.   Inquiry of self (questioning your own assumptions and beliefs out loud) is almost never used.

Why do we do this?  We have been conditioned to believe that advocacy is the most effective form of influence and that our technical expertise is the primary source of our status and value.

Why is this a problem?  Advocacy from orientation-to-self is one of the least effective tools for (a) influencing complex decision-making environments, (b) avoiding predictable errors of judgment, (c) fostering creativity, and (d) doing adaptive work.

Inquiry is the most powerful influencing tool in complexity.  It invites others into a shared, safe space where assumptions can be held more lightly, diversity is welcomed, and failure leads to learning.  It is also essential for building collective commitment and engaging discretionary effort.

We need a better toolkit.