Positions and Needs – Using Respectful Inquiry

This is a very interesting aspect of having difficult conversations with people when they are cross and argumentative. In such a context, people are often spouting their positions – demands often – that tend to raise the temperature of the difference between you.

As we know, being in conflict is highly stressful. It is a fairly common process that people get up a “head of steam” before speaking. They gather their feelings, beliefs – prejudices even – and let fly with invective that they feel best represents where they are in terms of their experience of the situation.

This is often part of the human experience and may be quite understandable. What can really help is to know what to do and perhaps more importantly what not to do when facing such an experience. In this article, we’ll be looking at these positions, what needs may lie behind them and how we can use a respectful inquiry to take the conversation onto more fertile ground.


Positions are often the carapace that people take on in difficult conversations. Here are some examples of such positions

  • You never listen to me!
  • Support staff are always last in line to be asked
  • Don’t worry, I’m used to feeling like the poor relation!

The temptation when you faced with such positions is to respond directly back to the position – indeed in many circumstances, using the actual words used by the other person is very useful – however in these circumstances it can lead you down an alley of no return. Let’s consider the first example…

Them:             You never listen to me!

You:                Yes I do!

Them:             No you don’t!

You:                I listened to you this morning when you told me about that film

Them:             Not really….

You:                Yes I did!

Them:             No you didn’t!

You:                But I did, you told me that guy you like was in it

Them:             You never listen to anything important

You:                Yes I do

You get the picture, its basically an “yes I did, no you didn’t” type of contradictory argument. The art here is to step away from the front line of this conversation to think what unmet needs might lie beyond the expression…”You never listen to me”…

Focusing on “Needs”

When faced with positions, it’s quite normal to respond to what is being said, often by contradicting the statement as above. However we rarely talk someone out of their position by responding directly to it, we risk that table-tennis, back and forth, yes you did, now I didn’t exchange.

Take the second example above – “Support staff are always last in line to be asked”. We might respond by reminding the speaker that they had the chance to raise their issue in the last staff survey. This may stop them in their tracks but maybe also send them away grumbling. So let’s ask ourselves – what unmet need may lie behind the statement? A simple – but compelling – need may be that they would like to be consulted more. If we are really interested in an engaged staff group, we may wish to explore this, but if the speaker repeats their initial statement, it could be very difficult to further the conversation. This is where respectful inquiry comes in.

Respectful Inquiry

One way of helping to get around this is to do some respectful guessing about what might lay beyond the position, what might be the unmet need that has caused the person to express themselves using that position.

Key to success here is that the inquiry is respectful and acknowledges that the other person is an expert on their experience, not you. The nightmare scenario here is the other person says something like “Don’t worry, I’m used to feeling like the poor relation!” and you respond triumphantly “Ahh I know what’s wrong with you, you don’t like being moved into the annex!”

You may be right of course, unfortunately people really hate being told what is wrong with them. You may have more luck utilising a genuine, respectful inquiring approach like “I hope that you don’t mind me asking but I wonder if you are feeling a bit apart from the rest of the company?”

Again you may be right or wrong. The hope here is to open out the conversation and take it away from the yes/no bouncing ball and onto a more constructive dialogue area. The other person may agree that they feel apart or demure and tell you it’s something else – the intention is to move away from the position into what may really be going on.

Now of course, it may not work at all. They may question your genuineness or maybe their position is so entrenched that you’ll have to do lots more listening. Maybe nothing will work! As I have said in earlier articles, all we can do is use the tools at our disposal to try to get a better outcome for the people we work with.

An example….

A couple of years ago my wife and I were on a group holiday with my son who was 16 at the time. It was an activity holiday with strenuous days and time to relax in the evening. One of the other members of the group was a man travelling alone who had told us that he had a son of a similar age to my boy. One evening my son was trying to convince this man that computer gaming was a valuable pastime. The guy was responding angrily, saying that they were a waste of time and should be banned. My son countered saying how creative and imaginative they were. The man was becoming increasingly agitated and I too was becoming concerned that he was being rather hard on my teenage son. Before interjecting I had a quick think about what kind of unmet need this man had to behave and speak in such a way. Then it dawned on me! “I’m wondering” I said, “if you may be a bit worried about your son and all the time he spends playing on the computer?”. I had struck lucky but it was evident by the tension that went from his face and body that that was indeed the case. I was then able to empathise with him and even my son joined in listen with concern as he talk about his son being isolated from classmates.

Reflective Exercise

A simple one this week. Just think back to difficult conversation and identify the positions that people were using and consider what unmet need lay behind them. You may also want to notice this phenomena in the conversations you have this week.

Phil Jones. April 2017











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