Standing in inquiry – why it serves us well in our work and in life

I was recently thinking about Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If”, particularly the lines:

“If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you”

Each of us needs a way to keep our head at the times we feel uncertain, confused, or under tremendous pressure. But when overwhelmed, there is a risk of gravitating towards closing down and being less open. We can start making assumptions, becoming defensive, judgmental or argumentative. And these patterns of behaviour are unlikely to serve us well in complex situations.  This is the exact time when we need to take a broader, more open and considered approach.

This led me to wonder . . . in complex situations, how is it possible to take a more open stance?  How do we remain questioning, engage in inquiry, have shared exploration, and undertake self-reflection? In many everyday situations might this more open stance be a helpful? What would it look like?

In Human Systems Dynamics a suggested 'way of being' in complex settings is to Stand in Inquiry. What is Standing in Inquiry? It is way of engaging with the world where you:

  • Turn judgment into curiosity
  • Turn disagreement into shared exploration
  • Turn defensiveness into self-reflection
  • Turn assumptions into questions.

As I was thinking of this I remembered a situation I’d been in a couple of years ago. The story I share here illustrates how Standing in Inquiry can be a useful approach in everyday life.

My husband and I walked out along the Godley Head cliff tops one summer day on a visit to Christchurch. It was beautiful out on the golden hills. A zephyr breeze carried the scent of the sea and the sounds of summer. We relaxed on the grass at the top of the cliffs and enjoyed a magical view and the midday sun.

© Photo: Judy Oakden

Without warning, without even a rumble, there was an almighty jolt. The earth dropped and shook. It was as if a ship had crashed at full speed into the cliff. Earthquake! Loud cracking sounds followed. The cliffs, less than 10 meters in front of us, started collapsing into the sea.

We scrambled inland out of the danger zone – as the earth beneath us continued to shake and tremor. When the quaking stopped, we reached for our phones. They worked! We sought feedback from our earthquake app Geonet (yes, we have this in New Zealand). We’d just experienced a shallow and severe 5.7 magnitude shake -- and we were near the epicentre!

We came together with other walkers on the top of the hill. We were all feeling quite shocked, dazed, and a bit confused by such an unexpected and extreme event. We established we were all safe and uninjured. Then we watched in awe as the cliffs all along the peninsular crumbled into the sea.

© Photo: Peter Cook

Next, a huge dust cloud from a large chunk of cliff falling off right in front of us engulfed us. The dust cloud took a good ten minutes to clear. Meantime we stood there looking, taking photos, and thinking.

This was the biggest earthquake I'd ever been in at that point. And my husband and I were uncertain how best to proceed after the shake. So, we stopped, sat down, and took stock. We had a bit of a discussion about what worried each of us. This was us Standing in Inquiry. Our questions were roughly:

Were our children back in Christchurch unharmed?

What supplies did we have left? Water? Food?

Would the track we walked out on still be useable? We recalled quite a few sections of track on steep slopes that might have collapsed in the quake.

Would it safe to use the track in the aftershocks? We wondered if there was a risk of large boulders coming down in later earthquakes – we knew these further shakes would come.

What alternative routes were there? Would one of these be better?

And once back at the car would we even be able to drive back into town? There was another hill to navigate by car. We could see the cliffs had collapsed near the road.

That afternoon, we responded by taking lots of small cycles of Adaptive Action, one little step at a time. First, we texted our children. They were fine…"welcome to Christchurch!!" they texted back. We had some water and food with us, not a lot, but enough for the rest of the day at a pinch.

There were two ways back to the car. A shorter track was the one we had come out on. There was also a longer unknown alternate route over the hill instead going back around the side of the hill. However, we chose the short route around the side of the hill. We checked with walkers coming the other way as we progressed to ensure that the track was still useable. There were aftershocks, but they weren’t too bad, and no rocks came down the hill. 

We got back to the car by mid-afternoon. But then we learned there were traffic jams on the other side of the next hill, so we waited a while before we left. By the time we drove over the hill, the police had put up road blocks. We could travel easily through the less safe areas.

What started as a simple afternoon stroll turned, without warning, into a much more complex situation. We had to make an unexpected series of decisions – out of the blue.

Afterwards, I reflected on this experience. I thought that people often find themselves in situations where they are uncertain or can't agree what to do next.  And at times we are forced to navigate situations way outside our experience.  One strategy is to keep moving in the uncertainty and do the best we can. What might increase our odds of making wise decisions in these situations?

What did we do that day that worked? Well firstly, we didn’t sit on the hill and make one big plan for how we’d get all the way back to Christchurch. There was too much that was unknown. We said we will do this one step first, and then we will decide what to do at the next decision point. And we kept doing little Adaptive Action cycles.

From this experience I learned that when I find myself in uncertainty I need to Stand in Inquiry. Doing little Adaptive Action cycles is a good approach – take stock, (WHAT), decide what the options are (SO WHAT), and then just take one small little step (NOW WHAT).

Working with what you know, it is possible to take the next and then the next wise Adaptive Action, as you work towards your intended goal.

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