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					                                   Productive Business Dialogue
                                 By Bill Noonan, The Learning Circle


The human brain is very efficient, and our thinking is amazingly quick. We can walk into a room,
size up what we see happening there, and say or do something almost instantaneously. Our
quick thinking helps us make sense of our everyday experiences and respond quickly. Yet, the
same qualities that make our thinking so efficient can also limit us.

For example, we tend to see our conclusions as factual and evident. It’s as if a little voice inside
our heads says, “It’s so obvious that this is what’s happening. How come others can’t see it?” But
when our conclusions feel obvious, we risk missing something that others are seeing. Or, we
expect others to see how obvious our conclusions are—and then get frustrated if they don’t share
our views.

Because of our quick thinking, when we’re taking part in a discussion and faced with a difference
of opinion, we tend to hurl our conclusions back and forth. You may have taken part in
discussions in which participants said things like: “What’s going on here is…” or “No, the real
issue is…” Sometimes the discussion centers on suggested solutions or actions to take: “We
should do this…” or “No, the way to go on this is…”

We continue to hurl solutions back and forth until someone in a position of authority steps in,
makes a unilateral choice, and declares one party the victor and the other the loser. Or, we
commit ourselves to action without adequately addressing the concerns of everyone involved—
often without even arriving at a shared definition of the problem.

The meeting ends, and people go off muttering to themselves, “This’ll never work.” Often, the
plan doesn’t work, and people scratch their heads wondering how their best-laid solutions went
awry.

Perhaps the worst outcome is when participants make no decision during a meeting, but then
spend countless hours “behind the scenes,” lobbying the authoritative decision-maker to take
their side.

The results of all this? We waste time, our teams become inefficient and polarized, and our
business problems remain unsolved.

We get stuck in these ways because of how we’ve learned to cope with the complicated world
around us. That world is filled with information and data. Much of that information is not be
available to us. After all, we’re not omniscient: We can’t know everything. Even the information
that is available to us is often so vast that we can’t take it all in.

So we go through our days selectively focusing on some things and not on others. We then
assign meaning to those things (that is, interpret them) based on the context of the situation, and
on our beliefs, expectations, and previous experiences. Although two people may see the same
object or hear the same words, they invariably will interpret them differently. From these
interpretations, we then draw more abstract and general conclusions. In other words, we name or
explain what we believe is happening, or we propose action.

For example, two managers attend the same meeting where a Vice President makes a
presentation. Each of the managers hears the same words and observes the same mannerisms
of the Vice President, yet each selects some of the Vice President’s words and gestures as
important and ignores others. At this point, they each begin interpreting the meeting differently.



© Copyright 2002 by Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.

Productive Business Dialogue                                                                  Page 1
Depending on the words and gestures they’ve selected, they each come up with a different twist
of interpretation. Then, as they walk out of the meeting, one manager says to the other, “Wow,
what a great presentation!” The other manager responds, “You’ve got to be kidding! The Vice
President didn’t cover any new ground.” They stare at each other and each wonder, “Were we at
the same meeting?”

The Ladder of Inference

The Ladder of Inference, a metaphorical tool developed by Chris Argyris, a Professor at the
Harvard Graduate Schools of Business and Education, is a reflective aid that helps us see how
we step through our thought processes to arrive at conclusions. You can visualize the tool as a
Ladder standing in a pool of “data”; that is, the events, statements, facts, and information that are
around us and accessible. Each rung on the Ladder represents a step we take to transform that
data into conclusions. The higher we climb on the Ladder, the more "general" or "abstract" our
thinking—and the greater the chance that we and others participating in a conversation could be
using different data, or using the same data but interpreting it in different ways.




Let’s take a closer look at the Ladder of Inference rungs below:

Available Data

“Data” is all the available information, facts, and sensory stimuli that surround us in our everyday
world. All data shares certain key characteristics:

•   Data exists in limitless quantities—more than our minds can hold. That’s why it’s impossible
    to focus on all the available data—and why we necessarily select some data from the pool. In
    fact, the image of an ocean may be more fitting than that of a pool.




© Copyright 2002 by Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.

Productive Business Dialogue                                                                   Page 2
•   Data is observable. You can see it. I can see it. Everyone can agree the data exists
    independent of our interpretations. This means data is "hard," as if a video camera could
    capture its sights and sounds. Data includes spoken words, tone of voice, and gestures, as
    well as accounting reports, written memos, saved e-mail messages, statistical reports, tests,
    and marketing results.

•   Data is often unintelligible unless we interpret it. For example, if the stock market drops 300
    points in a day, that’s simply a fact. The fact becomes significant only after we interpret and
    respond to it. For example, we might decide that a 300-point drop signals serious trouble in
    the market and decide to stop investing in stocks.

Select Data

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to pay attention to all the information, data, facts, and sensory
stimuli that bombard us in any given moment. Imagine what our lives would be like if we had to
examine and interpret every piece of data we encountered! We’d become overwhelmed and
paralyzed. So, we select data that we deem significant or important, or data that in some way
catches our attention. Many times, we consciously choose what we select or ignore, but just as
many times, the choice feels "spontaneous and intuitive." As soon as we select data, we begin
adding meaning to, or interpreting that data.

Add Meaning and Interpret Data

Once we select data, we begin to add meaning to it. We interpret what we see, hear, read, and so
forth. For example, we may hear certain words. Then, in relating them to someone else, we
paraphrase what we thought we heard. Often we inject our own meaning as we choose our
words. For example, someone reading a thermostat might say, “It is 80 degrees in here.” In
relating that information to someone else, you might say, “It was very hot in that room.” In this
case, you’ve interpreted “80 degrees” to mean (to you) “hot.”

Our own cultural and personal perspectives powerfully shape how we interpret data. In every
culture, language helps us arrive at shared understanding of our world through the use of often-
used words that have agreed-upon meanings. The use of words can range from commonly
understood meanings such as “a mistake” to words that are charged with highly specific
meanings particular to a certain culture.

For example, in the United States, if you tell someone, “I got a ticket,” the other person may
congratulate you (if they assume you have a ticket to a ballgame or show) or commiserate (if they
assume you received a parking violation). Our communication remains efficient—that is, we
understand each other easily—as long as we use commonly held cultural understandings.

Draw Conclusion

Now we come to the final outcome of the Ladder of Inference process—our conclusions. As
we’ve noted, our conclusions may seem so clear, so obvious, and so valuable to us, but not to
others. When we state our brilliant idea, we might not mention the reasoning that led us to that
idea. Or we might not cite the facts that we’ve selected and that have influenced our conclusion.

Why do we neglect to mention these steps in our thinking? The answer is surprisingly simple:
We’re usually unaware of these steps as we “climb our Ladder.” The process happens so quickly
that what may seem perfectly clear in our own mind is obvious only to us. Our thinking seems to
just "pop" into our heads—never giving us the opportunity to slow down enough to see how we
got from “there to here.” Instead, we sit at the top of our Ladders, trying to communicate from one
Ladder to another, and never realizing that we’re sitting on two different Ladders.


© Copyright 2002 by Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.

Productive Business Dialogue                                                                   Page 3
Keep in mind that there’s nothing wrong with being on top of the Ladder. It’s where we live much
of the time. After all, we have to draw conclusions in order to take action. But when we detect a
disconnect in the conversation or when we seem to be going around in circles, it’s helpful to slow
down so that we and the other conversation participants can explore our differences and
determine where our thinking diverges.

By tracing the steps in our thinking, we can help each other understand how we each climbed our
Ladders of Inference. We get the conversation moving forward again—this time with an expanded
base of information from which to evaluate solutions and make decisions.

Using the Ladder of Inference: Advocacy and Inquiry

When we find ourselves exchanging conclusions and getting nowhere, we need to refocus the
conversation toward mutual learning. How can you disclose your viewpoint in such a way that
others can learn from it? And how can you get a closer look at others’ perspectives and thereby
learn from them?

One way is to use a process called “Advocacy and Inquiry.” Simply put, it’s the art of making
statements and asking questions in such a way as to reveal your thought process and understand
others’ thought processes. Conversations can become immensely more productive and creative if
we can identify what information from the pool of data everyone is focusing on, what information
has been ignored, and what underlying assumptions and values might be shaping our
interpretations and decisions.

For example, did the conversation get stuck because different individuals are looking at different
data? Or, are the individuals focusing on the same data, but interpreting it differently? And what
led each person to select particular data or interpret it as they did? By conversing at this level, we
can understand one another’s thinking and arrive at decisions and solutions that everyone can
support.

Of course, we make statements (advocacy) and ask questions (inquiry) all the time. But for
mutual learning to occur, we need to use a balance of both during a conversation. That is, there
should be a mutual exchange of viewpoints and lines of inquiry as the encounter progresses.

This is not to suggest that we should try to be in “mutual-learning mode” all the time. We simply
can’t engage every thought that comes down the line. If we tried to, we’d never get any work
done.

In fact, with some problems, aiming for mutual learning might be the least appropriate thing to do.
For example, suppose your department’s copy machine breaks down. In this case, it doesn’t
make sense to ask the repair person what data has led her to conclude that the machine’s toner
is low. The problem is straightforward, so asking her to share her line of reasoning would only
waste precious time during which she could be fixing the machine.

It’s best to aim for mutual learning when the issue at hand is complex, the stakes are high, and
there are many different possible—and equally valid—perspectives.

Also, just because a conversation has a balance of advocacy and inquiry doesn’t necessarily
mean that mutual learning is occurring. For example, suppose I say to you, “I think that’s a bad
idea, don’t you agree?” In this case, I’ve advocated my viewpoint and made an inquiry, yet you
and I have learned nothing. You don’t know what data I’ve selected, or what meaning I’ve
attached to the data, to draw the conclusion: “That idea is bad.” Moreover, I haven’t become
curious about your viewpoint. Instead, I’ve presented my inquiry (“Don’t you agree?”) in a way


© Copyright 2002 by Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.

Productive Business Dialogue                                                                   Page 4
that suggests I’m expecting an affirming response. In other words, I’ve hit you with a classic
leading question.

A high-quality, productive advocacy helps others see what data you’ve selected, what meaning
you’ve attached to it, and what conclusion you’ve drawn. In other words, by presenting an
effective advocacy, you make your Ladder of Inference more transparent to others. Similarly, a
high-quality inquiry helps others to share their own reasoning process. By balancing advocacy
and inquiry, you can encourage mutual learning during a conversation.

Crafting a Productive Advocacy

To craft a productive advocacy, slow your thinking down and trace it back to the “select data”
rung of the Ladder of Inference. Ask yourself: “What has caught my attention? What information
have I selected to be the most important?” Illustrate your selected data with an example. The
example often triggers others to remember and then recount the data that they selected. When
selecting an example to cite, consider whether the facts in the example are readily accessible to
the other person. Is there some way the example could be verified independent of your or others’
interpretation?

For instance, suppose a colleague says, “I see our leadership slipping in this organization.” His
conclusion “Our leadership is slipping” is abstract and high on the Ladder. At this point, your
colleague hasn’t shared key bits of information from his Ladder. For example:

•   What does “slipping” look like, in his opinion? That is, what does your colleague see
    happening in the organization that would suggest that the leadership is “slipping”?

•   In your colleague’s view, what does leadership consist of? In other words, what do leaders
    do? What should they be responsible for?

In this case, your colleague could craft a high-quality advocacy by saying something like:

        “I see our leadership slipping in this organization. When I reviewed our sales reports, I
        noticed a twenty percent drop during the months of July and August—the same months
        that fifteen out of forty sales reps took their vacations. I see a connection here and
        attribute the decreasing sales to a lack of coordination of our sales force, which to my
        mind is a function of leadership.”

In this example, the speaker states a high-level conclusion and follows it with the data that he
selected—which is accessible to and verifiable by others. Any number of people could review the
vacation logs, sales reports, and schedules that your colleague has cited.

After explicitly sharing the data he selected, the speaker shares the meaning he added to that
data. In this case, he interpreted the data as showing a “lack of coordination of our sales force.” In
this way, he has made sense of the relationship between a drop in sales and scheduled vacation
time.

Finally, the person links his interpretation (lack of coordination) to his understanding of what
leaders do. Though someone else might have made different connections in trying to explain their
point of view, your colleague’s advocacy does make his thinking explicit. Now you and he can talk
about that thinking and learn from each other’s perspectives.

Crafting a Productive Inquiry




© Copyright 2002 by Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.

Productive Business Dialogue                                                                   Page 5
High-quality inquiry is just as important as high-quality advocacy. For instance, there’s a
difference between “You agree, don’t you?” and “Do you see it differently?” The first inquiry seeks
a confirming response; the second actively encourages challenge. A quality inquiry helps others
down their Ladders in a way that doesn’t evoke defensiveness, grill them for information, or make
them feel pressured to prove a point.

One way to frame an effective inquiry is to simply ask, “Could you give an example?” Often, your
listener will give a response that specifically identifies the data they selected. Well-crafted
inquiries also invite alternative views and new information. Asking a group, “What may we be
missing?” or “What obstacles might we encounter if we take this course of action?” actively
encourages productive exploration of everyone’s reasoning. Here are additional examples of
productive inquiries:

•   “Do you see it the same or differently?”
•   “What did I say that triggered your thought?”
•   “How do you understand what I am proposing?”
•   “What is your reaction?”
•   “Is there anything I could say or do that might alter your thinking?”

Quality inquiries generally don’t use “why” questions, because such queries tend to make
listeners feel pressured to “prove” their point or “justify” their position. Also, people tend to
respond to “why” questions with fairly abstract explanations, such as “because I knew it was
important.” While such responses may generate useful information, they are often fairly abstract.
Inquiries that begin with “what,” “how,” “when,” and “where” yield more descriptive responses,
generated at lower rungs on the Ladder of Inference.

Balancing Advocacy and Inquiry

As you begin practicing the art of productive conversation, keep the following advocacy/inquiry
“recipes” in mind:
•   When objecting to a proposal: “I don’t see how this proposal addresses the X, Y, or Z
    concern. Do others see the connection, and if so, how?”
•   When proposing an idea: “What drives my conclusion is (selected data). For example, when
    (event) occurred, I took it to mean (interpretation). Did others understand this in the same
    way, or differently?”
•   When signaling to others your thoughts about a certain topic: “I’m putting everything that
    you’ve said through the filter of ‘Does it reduce cost?’ By holding this single focus, am
    I missing anything important?”
•   When checking for shared understanding: “When you said X (selected data), I took that to
    mean (interpretation). Have I understood you correctly, or would you modify my
    interpretation?”
•   When disclosing your emotions: “When you said X (selected data), I had a strong reaction to
    it (emotion). I immediately thought you were trying to pass the task off to me (interpretation).
    Am I misunderstanding what you said or intended?”
•   When identifying negative consequences of others’ decisions or actions: “I can imagine that
    your intentions were good when you cleaned up my messy desk. I know this may be hard to
    believe, but that’s my way of keeping track of things. After you left, I spent 15 minutes looking
    for a paper I needed but couldn’t find.”




© Copyright 2002 by Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.

Productive Business Dialogue                                                                  Page 6
You may have noticed that most of the above “recipes” provide examples or illustrate how the
speaker arrived at his/her meaning or conclusions. Even more important, many end with an
inquiry. By balancing advocacy with inquiry, we invite others to challenge our thinking. We
thereby acknowledge the partiality and limitations of our thinking, and help each other fill in gaps
in our knowledge.

Of course, balancing every advocacy with an inquiry would extend meeting times beyond their
reasonable limits. So when is it most appropriate to strike a balance? Look for moments during a
meeting or conversation in which there is:

•   A potential disconnect in how people understand what each other said or meant.
•   A suggestion or proposal for action that could create unintended difficulties.
•   A difference in how people are describing a problem.

The terms “quality advocacy” and “quality inquiry” may sound like fancy ways of saying “stating
my view” and “asking others for theirs.” But, they actually mean something more. They challenge
us to raise the bar on the effectiveness of our workplace conversations.

What you will soon discover is that what appears to be common sense is actually very hard to
do—it requires new skills. Don’t worry if you feel a bit awkward when you first begin conversing in
these ways. Like any other skill, productive business dialogue takes practice and patience. But
eventually, these techniques will start feeling more natural. And with practice, these skills will lead
to more productive discussions, better decisions, and more effective actions.




© Copyright 2002 by Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.

Productive Business Dialogue                                                                    Page 7

				
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