Module 5: Exploring Issues to Understand Interests – Section 2

The following is Section 2 from Module 5 of “Essential Skills for Engaging Conflict”, a course that Sound Options Group developed in partnership with Oklahoma State University.  These modules are a great resource to lead your team through as a you work to improve your conflict engagement skills.

Intentional Inquiry:  Asking questions in service of a conversation of shared learning

In Module 3, we introduced the notion of “conversational stance” described by Stone, Patton and Heen in their book, Difficult Conversations:  How to Discuss What Matters Most.  You will remember that they differentiate between what they refer to as a “telling stance” and a “learning stance”.  The stance we take has a significant impact on the quality of the conversation.  Our stance will fundamentally determine the line of inquiry we pursue and the types of questions we ask.

In a book entitled, Change Your Questions Change Your Life, author Marilee Adams introduces a strategy she calls QuestionThinking.  She refers to it as a “system of tools using questions for vastly better results in almost anything you do”.  This reinforces the correlation we just introduced between the questions asked and the quality of our conversation.  Questions make up a significant part of both our internal and external dialogue and therefore have significant impact on the way(s) in which we engage our world and each other. Adams states that, “questions drive results.  They virtually program how we behave and what kinds of outcomes are available.”

Adams distinguished between two paths of engagement which she refers to as the “Learner Path” and the “Judger Path”.  Each path is characterized by different types of questions.  For example when choosing the “Judger Path”, you are inclined to ask questions like:

  • What’s wrong with them?
  • What’s wrong with me?
  • Why are they so stupid?
  • How do I fix this?

Judger questions are often couched in automatic reactions, are blame focused, and see things in a win/lose context.  This takes us back to the “Universal Human Paradigm” introduced in Module 1 that says:

  • There is a way that things “should” be.
  • When they are that way, things are right.
  • And when they are not that way there is something wrong with me, with them, or with it.

In contrast, when choosing the “Learner Path”, you are more likely to ask questions like:

  • What happened?
  • What’s useful?
  • What do I want?
  • What can I learn?
  • What is the other person thinking, feeling, needing, wanting?

As in the distinction between a Telling Stance and Learning Stance, the options of Judgers Path and Learners Path are a choice.  Who am I committed to being in this conversation?  What choice will have me most at integrity with my intentions?  Learner questions are born out of thoughtful choices, a commitment to mutual purpose and mutual benefit.  They are questions driven by the curiosity of the Learner’s Stance.

We introduce the term, Intentional Inquiry, as a method of asking questions with purpose in mind.  By this we do not mean questions meant to manipulate the conversation or to coerce a specific outcome.  Rather the inquiring person intends to inspire reflection and new thinking. The term intentional used here is significant.  Questions in this context becomes tools by which we “unpack an issue”, “dive more deeply into an issue”, and “create a deeper shared pool of meaning”.  Building on the tool metaphor, we know that different tools do different types of work.  For example if you are building a house, you would not use a framing hammer (large, heavy, and leaves a waffle pattern in the wood) when doing the fine finish nailing on cabinets.  In the same way, different questions do different types of work in a conversation.  The list below provides samples of this.


  • are encouraging and non-threatening,
  • invite further discussion,
  • are useful for beginning a session or opening discussion, and
  • give the respondent latitude in what information s/he chooses to share.


Tell me more about that…”

“What else happened?”

“What happened next?”


  • help gain understanding of a term or concept, and
  • move from the general to the specific.


What do you mean by ‘always, every, never’?”

“What does ‘unreasonable’ mean to you?”

“What don’t you understand?”

“Who specifically doesn’t care?”


  • help gain understanding of the respondent’s reasoning, and
  • encourage reflection by the respondent and understanding by the questioner.
  • HINT:  Ask these instead of asking “Why?


“How did you expect this to turn out?”

“What leads you to that conclusion?”


  • help gain understanding of the other person’s interests, assumptions, fears, expectations and priorities, and
  • help shift the respondent’s thinking to what s/he is trying to accomplish.


“What concerns you about…?”

“What do you most want me to understand about ____ that you don’t think I understand?”

“What is the best/worst that can come from this?”



  • challenge a person’s line of reasoning,
  • create a shift or change in a person’s position or point of view, and
  • “gently” challenge incongruities in a person’s behavior, position,
    interests, etc.


“What do you suppose would happen if the press reported that?”

“You say you’re interested in my suggestions, but I notice you turn away when I start to talk.  What’s going on?”



  • generate alternatives or options, and
  • develop new ideas.


“What is one thing you could do to accomplish that?”

“How else might that be done?”


  • reality test a possible situation,
  • explore the outcome of a choice or behavior, and
  • examine the consequences of a decision


How does that suggestion meet your criteria for fairness?”

“What would that be like for you?”

“What would happen if you did?”

When asking questions it is helpful to keep the following in mind.

  • How thoughtful are you when asking questions?
  • Why are you asking the question you have chosen?
  • Why have you chosen now to ask that specific question?
  • What do you want that question to do?




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