Listen more, talk less, and ask Incisive Questions

This post is part of my 100-question challenge, where I review work from researchers, coaches, and counselors to identify questions that support participants to reflect and find solutions to their problems. Learn more about this challenge here. These are questions 60-64.

I just finished reading Time to Think, by Nancy Kline. The book was recommended to me by my Clean Language teacher, Angela Dunbar, as it makes a good argument for the importance of allowing people to think for themselves.

We, academics, love to think. But we are not very good at listening and letting others think. When we interact with students, we want them to think for themselves, but more often than not want to show them our great thinking, rather than giving them a chance to do some thinking themselves.

Nancy Kline argues for creating Thinking Environments in schools, organizations, and families, so we can all think better. A Thinking Environment has the following components (p. 35):

  1. Attention – listening with respect and interest
  2. Incisive Questions – questions that remove limiting assumptions
  3. Equality – treating each other as thinking peers
  4. Appreciation – keeping a ration of five appreciations for each criticism
  5. Ease – freedom from rush and urgency
  6. Encouragement – moving beyond competition
  7. Feelings – allowing emotions to be expressed
  8. Information – providing a full and accurate picture of reality
  9. Place – physical spaces that say people matter
  10. Diversity – recognizing the value of the difference between people

Incisive Questions

While I believe all of them are important, I particularly liked the notion of Incisive Questions. Incisive questions are questions that remove assumptions that limit ideas. By replacing limiting assumptions with a freeing assumption, incisive questions invite fresh new thinking.

Kline proposes the following process for using effective incisive questions (p. 166).

Following the identification of a goal (we have discussed the process of identifying a goal here), ask:

“What might you be assuming that is stopping you from achieving your goal?”

The participant may identify multiple assumptions. If that is the case, ask:

“Of these assumptions, which do you think is limiting you the most?”

Kline suggests that assumptions come in three types:

  1. Facts – I am not the boss; he is.
  2. A possible fact – the boss will think I am stupid.
  3. A bedrock assumption about the self (I am stupid; I am not worthy; I have no power) or about life (it is not all right to get it wrong; certainty is achievable; I have to have all the answers).

Of those, the bedrock assumption is the most dangerous and limiting. Incisive Questions are designed for dismounting bedrock assumptions. Thus, if faced with a fact or possible fact, we need to dig deeper until a bedrock assumption is uncovered. A good question here is:

“That is possible/true. But what are you assuming that makes that stop you?”

Once we have a goal and a bedrock assumption, we are almost ready to craft an incisive question. The structure of the incisive question is:

If you knew + freeing assumption + goal

A freeing assumption is the positive opposite of the bedrock assumption. Again, in line with the idea that participants’ words are best, it is best to ask participants what that is.  Then we are ready to construct our incisive question.

For example:

Q: What might you be assuming that is stopping you from achieving your goal.

A: The boss will think I am stupid.

Q: That is possible. But what are you assuming that makes that stop you?

A: I am assuming that I am stupid.

Q: What would the positive opposite of stupid be in this context for you?

A: Intriguing

Incisive Question: If you knew that you are intriguing, how would you handle this [goal]?

Then, repeat. Ask the incisive question multiple times until no new answer emerges. As discussed in a previous post, when we repeat a question multiple times, we give participants a chance to explore their thinking and find answers beyond the obvious. She suggests writing the question down and giving it to the participant to continue exploring the question beyond the session.

Nancy Kline goes on to caution about the tense used in crafting incisive questions. The present tense should be used to state a new positive assumption (you are intriguing) and the hypothetical tense to propose a new way of thinking. If you knew that you are…, how would you…

Incisive questions can be a powerful tool to add to the transformative interview toolbox as it gives participants a chance to think about their problems in a new positive light. It also offers researchers insight into limiting assumptions around a particular topic. I will definitely try it.

What may you be assuming that is stopping you from using transformative interviews?