Purposeful Inquiry – Using Inquiry in Tense Conversations

We’ve all been in situations where someone else’s words or manner seems very challenging, or even hostile. There are even individuals who have mastered the art of manipulating conversations and interactions by using a challenging or hostile tone, or passive-aggressiveness, in order to intimidate others into agreement or shut down a conversation altogether.

Often, such “communication intimidation” takes the form of overt (aggressive) or disguised (passive-aggressive) challenges, blaming, name-calling, etc. And too often, others involved in such interactions disengage and fall into silence or “just make it go away” agreement.

Think, for example, of a time when you observed or were a participant in a meeting or conversation where something like this occurred, with the result of stifling or shutting down dialogue. Perhaps the aggressive/passive-aggressive person said something like, “Well I was going to do it, but you didn’t give me the information I needed,” or “You never told me that.” Or maybe there was outright name-calling of the sort that people like Rush Limbaugh effectively use to bully and silence those who challenge or disagree with them.

Whether it’s subtle or obvious, aggressive communication is effective because it plays on the fear we all have of conflict, confrontation, or being the center of attention in a negative way.

Potential communication strategies

One way to skillfully respond to aggressive or passive-aggressive communicators (in normal settings) is to inquire — or ask questions — instead of reacting and shutting down. (This assumes that the situation is one of the typical, everyday interactions that we see at work, home, or elsewhere — not a violent situation where you feel for your physical safety.)

It’s much easier to use skillful inquiry if you’re centered and grounded, or present and aware of what’s taking place in the interaction. You see the interaction as personal-dynamics in action, and can respond accordingly, instead of reacting to “emotional hooks” thrown out by the other person.

Just how you choose to inquire depends on the particular conversation, and just how deeply you want to move into dialogue. The more important the stakes, the more beneficial it might be to see the dialogue through to a greater understanding.

For example, if you’re in a meeting or discussion and make a statement, and another fellow says, “Oh, you’re not one of those women, are you?” Instead of shutting down or getting defensive (which the statement is designed to make you do), you would inquire, asking a question such as, “What is your intention in making that statement, because it seems designed to shut down rather than continue this conversation — are you trying to shut down the conversation?”

If you wanted to really move more deeply into the issue, you could instead respond, “What kind of woman do you mean, exactly?” — a direction which will require another person to own the bias or intention beneath the surface-level statement.

If you’re just learning how to use inquiry, it might be easier to use questions like, “What’s your intention for saying that?” or “What’s most important (or concerning) to you about that, exactly?”

Questions keep dialogue moving, whereas hostile or challenging statements or name-calling are designed to intimidate and close conversation down. The latter only serves to fuel resentment and corrode relationships, so inquiry can be vital to communications that aren’t just more skillful and enjoyable, but also to healthy, productive relationships and teamwork.

Reflection questions:

  • When do you notice others — or yourself — shutting down in the face of someone else’s challenging or hostile communication ploys?
  • What are some ways you might use inquiry to move the dialogue beyond these potential barriers?
  • Do you ever notice yourself using “barrier” communications, trying to deflect or shut down communication?

This article was originally featured at Ivy Sea Online and is reprinted with permission.