Sunday, May 23, 2010

What Questions are used in the Inquiry Method? (Part 1 of 2)

I had the pleasure of speaking at the International Project Management Institute Conference last week and I have to say that they are about the nicest people you could ever work with. I had a great morning there and want to thank all the many folks I worked with for making me feel so welcome.

After my talk (entitled "What Goes Wrong in Business Communication?"), a very savvy friend who shall remain nameless asked a perfect question. We had been speaking about the Inquiry method of communication, which is clearly all about asking questions. I had shown my “famous” SPIRAL model and in the interest of time did not go into any detail at all regarding the exactly how one knows what questions to ask in order to get a counterpart to substantiate a claim.

I've been trying to work out just how to explain this in the newsletter. In class it is easy; in the newsletter, we'll see.

The first part of the endeavor is to understand Claims. People make claims and, if we don't accept them, we ask questions to understand them better. We continue to ask questions until we understand them fully. That is the heart of Inquiry model. We don't make statements about claims; we ask questions. We don't say "You're wrong about that". Instead we ask "What makes you say that?” That is how we come to understand the other parties' perspective while preserving safety and trust.

For reference, let's identify the four kinds of claims: Claims of Fact, Claims of Definition, Claims of Value (or Quality), and Claims of Policy. I'll get into the details of each next time, so for now don't worry about that. Just know that there are some questions that you ask REGARDLESS of the type of claim, and some questions that are DEPENDANT on the type of claim. This week, I am focusing on the questions to ask regardless of the type of claim. There are two such questions - Relevance and Meaning.

First, before you start analyzing the data behind the claim, ask yourself if the thing being claimed is important. Is it relevant? If not - if it someone making a statement like "the red tie is prettier than the blue tie" - then don't bother. It is a temptation among my students to begin analyzing EVERYTHING once they learn how because it feels so good to get better at this new skill and I assure you that it is a quick way to become labeled as a nuisance. Don't become overly analytical just because you have started to develop the skill.

When questioning the relevance of the statement, I do so pretty directly (the method that suits me best). I remember of course to be mindful of creating safety and so I approach tentatively and humbly and say something like "I may be missing something. I am having trouble understanding how what you just said relates to the larger topic. Could you fill me in?" The risk is if the person takes it as a challenge. If they appear to, I might say something like "I don't want you to think I am challenging the relevance. I'm not. I am just trying to understand it." these methods are discussed in my blog entries containing THE SCORE. Just search the blog if you are curious about how to maintain safety in a critical discussion.

If you readily see that the statement is irrelevant, then just dismiss it as such and move on. If, however you can't dismiss a statement as irrelevant, then you need to ask the second question - what does the statement MEAN? This is not always easy, but it is always important for you and the others involved in discussing a relevant statement to share an understanding regarding its meaning.

What does the claim mean? The reason that this is so important is because MANY times, the discussion goes wrong because the listener ASSUMES that they know what the speaker means, or feels that they shouldn't question the meaning for fear of appearing either uninformed or presumptuous. Even worse, some speakers would make you feel that way specifically so you don't raise questions. Let's walk through the process for a claim of fact that may come up in a business setting. Let's say we are talking about producing a new model and someone makes the claim: "Eventually, all of our customers will switch over to our new product even if the price is a little higher."

I like to examine each key word and see if I can come to understand what the speaker means. In the sample sentence, I would ask questions like "When you say 'eventually', what kind of timeline are you suggesting? 5 years?"; "Do you think all of our customers will adopt the new product or do you mean the majority of them, as in more than half? Do you think more than 90%?"; "When you say the price will be a little higher, a little higher than what - our current price? The competition's price for an equivalent product? ; How much higher will the price be, do you think?”

I try to make sure I have a clear picture of the important aspects of their statement BEFORE I begin to analyze the underlying data. Otherwise, there is just too little to analyze. At the end of this discussion, I’d like to have a statement that is clear enough to me that I can believe we have a shared understanding. My closing question would be something like this. "So, if I understand you correctly, you are saying that you expect that - more than 90% of our existing customers will stop using our current product and begin using our new model within 2 years of its launch even if the price is 30% higher than the price of our current product and 20% higher than our competitor's price for an equivalent product. Is that what you are saying?"

Note that what I have done is as questions about each of the aspects of the original statement that I did not understand, and tried to "plug in" the speaker's definition for each of those terms. I am not analyzing ANYTHING yet; just trying to understand exactly what the speaker means by their statement. Patience yields BIG rewards here. Trying to question a claim before you have a shared understanding of the meaning frequently leads to hurt feelings, destruction of trust, embarrassment, and other problems that are all avoided by coming to a clear and mutual understanding of the statement. It is interesting to note that about 40% of the time when I feel I understand just what the speaker means and ask them to confirm my interpretation of their statement just the way I did above, they respond by saying something like "No. I am saying it may take up to 3 years for 90% of them to switch; but 50% of them will in the first year". This means that even when I have asked all the questions, remained open minded and curious, and am just seeking to understand, I am still often wrong and need more clarification! If you don't go through this process, you will SELDOM be on the same page with the speaker.

Now that you have asked the Relevance question and the Meaning question, ask the Relevance question one more time; "Now that I have a clear understanding of what the speaker means, is the statement relevant in arriving a good decision?” If, with your new clarified understanding, you no longer see it as relevant then move on. If it is relevant, move on to understanding if the statement disintegrates under logical analysis.

We will study the questions used to study the logic of the four specific types of claims next time.

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