I have been working on a business-planning project for a client. As part of the front-end assessment I have been doing a series of in-person and telephone interviews. The interview structure includes inward conversations with key staff, board members, and volunteers involved with the agency, interviewing the “second circle” of local key stakeholders, and finally, interviewing other organizations nationally that have similar organizational missions. Having just hung up the phone from a 40 minute conversation with a program director in Chicago I am reminded again if the importance of inquiry in the facilitation process.
Inquiry as a facilitation skill is more than asking questions and is an engagement process of discovery. Asking questions is about interrogation while inquiry is the process used to build understanding. In my worldview, questions are one dimensional and concerned with answers. Conversely, inquiry is three-dimensional, seeking to 1) discover information, 2) create movement towards aspiration, and 3) fostering relationships. As inquiry is an important facilitation skill, it might be useful to consider a few principles of inquiry.
Between Information and Decisions are Reflection and Interpretation: One of the frameworks that influenced my thinking about inquiry was developed by the Institute of Cultural Affairs (see resources below) and is represented in the concept of “focused conversation.” The focused conversation model suggests moving from information to decisions by making room for reflection and interpretation. I have written previously about reflection as a facilitation skill and, in short, I believe that reflection is engaging the personal thoughts, feelings, and frames of reference of those being interviewed. Interpretation furthers the process by seeking meaning and reference. Bringing reflection and interpretation into inquiry allows for the humanization of information.
Framing Aspirations: A second facet of the inquiry process is drawn from the practice of appreciative inquiry. One of the fundamental premises of the appreciative inquiry approach is that individuals and groups move in the direction of the questions asked. In other words, if an inquiry is based on a traditional Strength, Weakness, Opportunity and Threat (SWOT) approach, then there is a 50-50 change that the conversation will move in the direction of the weaknesses and threats. Appreciative inquiry intentionally keeps the focus of questions on positive experiences, aspirational images of the future, and the compelling actions for organizations and communities that move towards transformation. In this way participants are guided through a strengths-based approach to planning.
Dismantling the “Because” Framing aspirations in the inquiry process is not to suggest that inquiry ignores critical uncertainties and barriers but inquiry should always be aware of the “because.” “Because” often truncates inquiry by creating an impediment to further exploration. So when confronted with “because that approach has failed in the past” or “because the current political environment won’t support that idea,” an inquiry approach dismantles the “because” by going around the “because” barrier. “Okay, if the current political environment is a barrier, where do you see the levers of change that can change the political environment and how does that influence our next steps?”
Remember the Goal is Understanding: Finally, for the process of inquiry to be successful, a facilitator needs to remember that the goal in not information but understanding. Going back to my current work on a business plan, the purpose of my interviews is to discover where the opportunities are, where information converges and diverges and where the positive core of energy is among those responsible for the growth of the organization. This inquiry process is the first stage of understanding. Questions alone reveal information. A process of inquiry brings information to life.
In my experience, the least helpful facilitation is when a facilitator continually asks individuals and groups generic questions like “what do you think” or “tell me what you think should happen next? Inquiry moves beyond generic questions. Inquiry is a process that requires forethought, sequence and intentionality. Questions may provide answers but inquiry provides meaning, relationships and energy. It is kind of higher order thinking that needs to be at the core of the facilitation process.