The Power of Assertive Inquiry

The startup world is full of people with strong opinions.  We value people who can articulate a clear point of view.  Yet the constant focus on advocacy can lead us down argumentative ratholes, and cause us to miss the contributions of the less assertive.

Rather than focusing on simply arguing for our own point of view, P&G CEO A. G. Lafley and author Roger Martin point out the importance of what they call assertive inquiry:

“I have a view worth hearing, but I may be missing something.” It sounds simple, but this stance has a dramatic effect on group behavior if everyone in the room holds it. Individuals try to explain their own thinking—because they do have a view worth hearing. But because they remain open to the possibility that they may be missing something, two very important things happen. One, they advocate their view as a possibility, not as the single right answer. Two, they listen carefully and ask questions about alternative views. Why? Because, if they might be missing something, the best way to explore that possibility is to understand not what others see, but what they do not.

This approach includes three key tools: (1) advocating your own position and then inviting responses (e.g., “This is how I see the situation, and why; to what extent do you see it differently?”); (2) paraphrasing what you believe to be the other person’s view and inquiring as to the validity of your understanding (e.g., “It sounds to me like your argument is this; to what extent does that capture your argument accurately?”); and (3) explaining a gap in your understanding of the other person’s views, and asking for more information (e.g., “It sounds like you think this acquisition is a bad idea. I’m not sure I understand how you got there. Could you tell me more?”).”

Assertive inquiry is far more persuasive than simple advocacy, as anyone who’s sat through product arguments at a startup can attest.  Once you go from trying to prove that you’re right, to trying to figure out the right answer regardless of the source, you can accomplish far more, and with far less conflict.

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