The conversation was important. I was being fired. I had a 5-minute warning. I took a breath and made a mental list of demands. However, when the conversation happened, instead of giving my opinion, which I normally would do, I faced it, and experienced an overpowering connection to what was possible. In my executive positions, I have been involved in hiring and firing conversations for more than a decade. So, I was prepared. I got to hear things that I’ve said to others in similar situations. “This isn’t personal. This is business.” However, what I said in response surprised me, there was no list of demands, only a simple statement, “I joined this organization for the highest good of all concerned, and that’s how I’ll leave it.” And then I was quiet. Something shifted in that moment for everyone in the conversation, because what happened next was totally unexpected. I walked out of the meeting and went back to work. What followed was nothing short of miraculous. The conversation among board members shifted from decision to inquiry: why are we doing this, what is the impact, and what is served.
The shock of that moment transported me to unexplored territory. I will be forever grateful for that moment of insight that allowed me to remain present and connected, versus operating from habitual responses that limit conversations.
So how do you make the shift from careless (not giving sufficient attention) to conscious (aware, intentional, considered), to the extent that you can talk about anything to anyone (including getting fired), and access something new?
By being present. Present to think and inquire with awareness and attention. By staying connected. Connected to listen and consider what’s being said. How do you actively create connection where it looks like the only option is to either turn away or dig in your heels? How do you open the doorway to connection and presence?
The key to the door is in the phrase, let’s look. It is the foundation of asking a well-aimed question, which can immediately shift a conversation from opinions to discovery. Here’s how it works:
When you’re off and running with an opinion, catch yourself and instead of continuing, stop and ask a question. By moving into inquiry, you create space between your opinion and someone else’s ideas. Even if it’s as simple as asking, what are your thoughts on this? In the silence that follows, thinking can happen, something new can be discovered or shared.
The balance in inquiry is found in stepping outside of the boundaries of agreement and disagreement. In an inquiry, if you’re not looking for agreement, what are you looking for?
Discovery, relationship, and surprise.
As you consider the following practices, use a current situation where a conversation didn’t go as well as you’d like. They’re easy to identify, because you’re probably still talking to yourself or others about what you could have said. It might have been about work, politics, religion, health care, or another person. Use that experience to look into how you can speak and listen in a way that supports inquiry.
Here are a few ways you can practice:
1. Determine what is fact versus opinion. Focus on facts vs. editorials that surround the situation or conversation. It’s a startling recognition when what you think is a fact turns out to be an opinion or what you’ve accepted as the truth. Sort out the facts from feelings, memories, understandings, assumptions, impressions and what other people said. Understanding this distinction will allow you to consider something new.
2. Be in charge of your conclusions. Creating space around your conclusions, gives you the opportunity to question them when you have new information. Don’t let your conclusions own you. If the facts change, make an adjustment. Ask what others think. Be curious. Answer some questions by saying I don’t know, let’s look. Say I don’t know; let’s look to your friends and family. Say it to co-workers. Say it instead of guessing. I was recently in a meeting and all those present started giving opinions, when someone said, let’s not guess, let’s check. It reminded me how easy it is to guess, or communicate by chance instead of just saying I don’t know, let’s look, let’s check, let’s do our homework!
3. Ask well-aimed questions. Questions allow you to look through someone else’s eyes. If you can see through their eyes, you catch a glimpse of the world they see. Seeing another point of view helps to deepen relationships, resolve conflict, and build thoughtful solutions. A well-aimed question accesses what’s unknown, and reveals what’s missing. A well-aimed question can be as simple as asking why is that important, what happened or what inspired that idea? Practice asking questions, instead of shutting down the conversation.
Remember, inquiry is not to agree or disagree, that’s a conversation for action. The aim in inquiry is discovery, the heart of a conversation for possibilities. As you engage with these practices, think about what matters most. They will enhance your ability to listen to anything, be connected and present, so you can initiate an inquiry into what’s possible.