Why Inquisitive Confrontation is a critical leadership skill

By Karen Brown, CEO, Exponential Results
By practicing ‘inquisitive confrontation’, leaders challenge the status quo without putting anyone on the defensive, says Karen Brown, Exponential Results

Very few people like confrontation. It often connotes negative reactions and poor outcomes, primarily based on previous experience with it. And, the overwhelming majority of people (specifically leaders) shy away from it, hoping the other person will just ‘get it,’ see the light and change their behavior.

But, if we are to learn anything, we learn it by looking at the results of our actions. Take social media – who changes their behaviour based on being confronted digitally or passively? Virtually no-one.

Enter ‘Inquisitive Confrontation.’

From my experience as a corporate leader who has used behavioural neuroscience, as well as using it in my programs with other leaders, for two decades – confronting our own thinking and actions and those of others can lead to the results we want. We just need to use it in the right way.  

With that in mind, when it comes to achieving behavioral change and getting results in business, try Inquisitive Confrontation. The term refers to confront others’ behavior, including confronting your own first, through curious inquiry.

This technique alleviates all the defensiveness and, most often, the emotional reaction that comes with confrontation.

Inquisitive Confrontation begins with Inner Reflection

Instead of leaning on performing work activities as they have always done them, many modern-day leaders take a more progressive approach using Inquisitive Confrontation. They begin by learning to confront their own thinking by asking themselves a few fundamental questions:

  1. Is this the best solution?
  2. What evidence proves it is the best solution?
  3. How can I find a better solution to this problem?

We often get caught up in our thinking – specifically, 'This must be the best solution because I thought of it.'

But by confronting this thought pattern, we may find that there are better courses of action. So, when we ask ourselves the questions above, it automatically engages our brain to find a supportive answer. 

This is the approach that leadership development coaches use when working with senior executives. Rather than simply going along with the executive and relying on their ideas and thinking, leadership development coaches inquisitively ask questions to uncover the best idea.   

Most senior leaders rose to executive positions because they were adept at identifying and implementing the best solutions within their organisations. The problem is that once a business leader ascends to the top, they operate in a vacuum by continuing with the same thinking and beliefs that got them there in the first place.

This can lead to problems. For example, suppose senior leaders keep doing things the way they always have because their brain equates it with past success. In that case, it can mean significant opportunity costs and missing out on tremendous opportunities that have never been thought of or tried before.

There are many CEOs who are outstanding leaders and value feedback. Still, even for them, Inquisitive Confrontation creates a communication platform that is not self-demeaning to anyone and opens dialogue. As a result, all of us can engage in conversation using Inquisitive Confrontation.

To summarize, three considerations are required:   

  • Consideration #1 Look inward. For many business leaders, confronting their own thinking has never even occurred to them. They believe that everything wrong with a situation is because of outside forces, not something they did. By engaging and questioning their internal thoughts, they can establish self-awareness.  
  • Consideration #2 After the inner confrontation, you must be willing to act on new ideas and try something different.
  • Consideration #3 Use Inquisitive Confrontation with others. Look at it as trying to understand the thinking that led to their actions. Engage with a sense of curiosity and interest. Ask open-ended questions and be sincere in your discussion. Here are examples of Inquisitive Confrontation questions:
  • What leads you to believe this is the best solution?
  • What could cause you to think there’s a better one?
  • What is the evidence that this is or isn’t the best solution?
  • What is the success indicator we’re looking to produce with this solution?

Practice makes perfect

This may feel chaotic or contrived at first, since you are switching to asking questions instead of dictating what to do; however, after some practice, you will see better outcomes. This creates a favourable response in your brain that leads to elevated success with Inquisitive Confrontation. And it simply snowballs from there.

When you interact with team members throughout the organization by asking questions, they become more confident in this style and are more eager to communicate with colleagues and senior leaders.

As the top executive, the CEO is surrounded by smart, capable, accomplished people and should seek to leverage their expertise -- the art of inquiry provides an excellent mode of communication for doing just that. Furthermore, having a CEO who utilizes Inquisitive Confrontation openly encourages team members to have an inquisitive voice with supervisors up through C-suite level. That is, Inquisitive Confrontation can go from team member to leadership as easily as it does the other way around.

One other point related to this topic regards the use of the word 'why' when confronting others. What we know from the science of neurolinguistics is that when we use the word ‘why’ with other people, we’re generally going to get a defensive response instead of the clear answer we’re looking for. If we ask questions such as ‘Why did you make that decision?’, or, ‘Why did you do it that way?’ it instantly puts the recipient in a position to have to explain and justify themselves and their actions, which can lead to a defensive posture.

Instead, ask ‘what’ questions. For instance, ‘What caused this?’, ‘What drove this?’, and ‘What’s underneath this?’ For Inquisitive Confrontation, we should look to switch out the word ‘why’ and replace it with ‘what.’

Bottom line, Inquisitive Confrontation helps generate better business decisions, stronger outcomes, easier teamwork, and optimal performance management.


Karen Brown, Founder and CEO of Exponential Results, draws upon her experience as a corporate executive, senior executive coach, and behavioral expert to elevate the performance and impact of senior executives. Follow her on LinkedIn.


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