Lead With Questions and Curiosity to Foster Consensus

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Have you ever found yourself in a disagreement or argument where the other person was solely advocating for their opposing position with little regard for your point of view? Not feeling heard is not only frustrating but also makes it nearly impossible to arrive at a solution or consensus. This concept is at the core of what makes for great facilitation. It is more inviting and leads to more effective outcomes to ask questions to better understand individuals’ perspectives than to advocate for a single perspective.

The goal of facilitation is to help the group arrive at a common understanding, develop ideas, and make decisions in support of reaching objectives. If the group does not understand one another, it is not likely that they will arrive anywhere desirable. A facilitator is responsible for leading with questions to guide the group to collective understanding.

Let’s take a look at how to identify and combat positions of advocacy.

Abolish Advocacy

When someone makes a statement about what they want they are advocating for what they want. When someone does this to you, it feels like they want to “win” rather than cooperate. There is little to no opportunity for them to hear let alone accept another point of view. A facilitator can begin to break down this wall by introducing a position of inquiry. Asking questions automatically changes the perspective from describing a solution to seeking shared understanding around needs and possible options. Instead of maintaining a defensive posture, asking questions opens up an inviting space to hear other peoples’ perspectives. In this space, there is no “right” or “wrong”, just discussion. An inquiry approach leads to an amicable solution. You must first understand the person’s position in order to conceive solutions that will support everyone. The only way to do this is to ask questions.

There are 3 factors that contribute to a groups’ defaulting to an advocacy approach instead of an inquiry approach even though it is less effective and less fun. Let’s explore all three.

Siloed Information

Disagreements among a group can come about due to several factors. One is misunderstandings/misinformation. If the group doesn’t have shared information, it’s easy to misunderstand one another or varying perspectives. Lack of information can lead to disagreement because context is simply missing.

For example: Imagine there is a company meeting about whether they should remain remote permanently or return to in-person. Someone pitches the idea of transitioning to a hybrid workplace as a beneficial solution. They say it will increase team members’ productivity and ultimately lead to increased profits. Several others in the group strongly disagree. They advocate for their opposing view, saying that a hybrid workplace is just too complicated to implement. There’s no way it could work, they argue. This meeting has no facilitator to mediate and intervene with questions to shift the dynamic. So the two opposing sides continue to strongly advocate for their stance. Both sides push and push and struggle to make any headway until finally it’s clear there is no hope of reaching a consensual decision. Then the most senior or the most assertive person in the room announces which solution wins. People support the decision begrudgingly, everyone leaves disgruntled, and the project doesn’t go well. 

Now imagine if the same meeting had a facilitator that helped the group understand one another and navigate the decision-making process. The same opposing viewpoints are presented and people are taking a defensive stance to defend their position. The facilitator intervenes and begins to ask questions to both sides, working to better understand each perspective. Using MURAL,  the facilitator creates two sections on a template for the group: one for hybridizing and one for returning to the office. The facilitator asks both sides questions to extract more details about their viewpoints, such as, “Tell me more about that,” and “How would this work?” “Now how is this different?” They document the breakdown in the MURAL sections and the group can see the breakdown of each side, which gives them a clearer understanding.

Through inquiry, the group learns that those with a fear of hybrid oppose the idea because they lack the knowledge of how to successfully transition to a hybrid workplace. Because they don’t know how to do it, they opposed it. Instead of asking more questions about how to transition to hybrid, they just advocated for their idea. Asking questions revealed the missing information that both sides needed to better understand each other, and ultimately reach a solution that was best for the company. The more you know, the more you are able to find common ground.

Opposing Values

A difference in values can also lead to misunderstanding. When people have the same information, but fundamentally disagree due to their values, it can lead to disagreement. You can come to a solution by isolating the key values – understanding the different values for what they are – and then combining the values to create a compromise.

The notion of compromised values is inauthentic and people can’t uphold the accommodation for long before they collapse under the weight. When there is a values clash, all hope is not lost, but it is essential to name it and have a focused conversation to explore those values and why the group is stuck on them. Explore if you’re able to adapt the option to come to a decision or solution that the entire group can support. Or perhaps you realize that the conflict is around a value of someone that doesn’t have to directly support the outcome and maybe they are ok with it after understanding the trade-offs. You can only come to these conclusions when you address them through conversation.

Personal Issues

An unrelated or outside factor can also affect disagreements. This could be someone’s personal experience that affects their decision or perspective on the matter at hand. A disagreement could also be as simple as the people involved not liking each other. To solve these types of disagreements, you have to rise above the problem and solve it from a higher vantage point. The more you can understand the individuals involved, the better prepared you are to gain consensus. People who advocate for their viewpoint due to matters unrelated to the topic being discussed often don’t have a definitive reason for their stance. A common type of response is “It just won’t work.” Asking these people questions like, “Can you help me understand your thinking here? “ and “How might we improve this?” will help you dig deeper and uncover the core issue. Everyone may not agree with each other’s opinions, but a better understanding of where each person is coming from can lead to a space of compromise and agreement about the matter at hand. The more inquisitive you are about the point of view of the audience, the better you are able to help them arrive at solutions.

Facilitator Questions

It’s one thing to know the importance of asking questions, it’s an entirely different matter to know the right questions to ask. When you frame them correctly, questions are an immensely powerful tool to dissolve tension and problems and create impactful solutions. 

That’s why we created the Facilitators Guide to Questions to help facilitators effectively navigate meetings/conversations. It includes questions to facilitate engagement, understanding, alignment, positivity, and more. It’s an excellent resource to refer to and use to spark ideas of ways to lead groups with inquiry, especially in times of disagreement. 

Here are a few examples: 

For when participants are disagreeing

  • “What is your understanding of what ___ is saying?”
  • “What evidence and reasons are there for…”

For extracting understanding

  • “Is that the real issue or are you upset/worried about something else?”
  • “It seems as though you had a reaction to that. Can you help me understand why?”

One of the greatest powers a facilitator has is that of posing questions. Simply asking can open minds and lead groups to think differently about one another and the world at large. The more questions you can ask of a group, the more understanding the group will gain. Remember, if you find yourself advocating for a cause, stop, breathe, listen, and ask a good question. You will take yourself out of attack mode and into a space of understanding. That is where creative solutions are born.