Parts of Speech

Communication is one of the critical group processes. An entire discipline is dedicated to the study of communication. For this class we will examine two models of communication that come from the Action Science/Inquiry tradition.

I. Torbert’s 4 Parts of Speech from Personal and Organizational Transformation by Fisher, Rooke, & Torbert (2000).


Refers to explicitly stating what the purpose is for the present occasion

E.g. "We’re about halfway through to our final deadline and we’ve gathering a lot of information and shared different approaches, but we haven’t yet made a single decision"

A frame can be the dilemma you are trying to resolve, what assumptions you think are shared or not. This is the element that is most often missing from conversations and meetings. Often people assume that they everyone knows the boundaries of the current situation.


Refers to explicitly asserting an option, perception, feeling, or proposal for action

in relatively aspect terms.

E.g. We’ve got to do something about class participation.

This frame occurs regularly in conversations and is often mixed with inquiry statements.


Involves telling a bit of a concrete story that puts meat on the bones of the

advocacy and orients and motivates more clearly.

E.g. "We’ve got to get class participation up (advocacy). Only 5 people spoke during the last class (illustration). If you’ve noticed this part of speech is something Borgatti and I both request of you during class discussions by asking questions (inquiry, see below), "Can you give me an example of that?"


Involves questioning others, in order to learn something from them.

E.g. (continuation of illustration example above) Why do you think participation is the key indicator?

The challenge of using the 4 parts of speech proposed by Torbert is that we have automatic patterns of communication that we prefer or are socialized to say by our family, profession, or culture.

Another challenge is that we mix part of speech together and make our intentions unclear. For example, have you every asked someone a question when you really knew the answer you wanted and were really "pushing your own agenda?" This happens in my shared office space with the group computer. I’ve often asked a colleague using the computer, "Are you using the computer?" when they are sitting in front of it using it. In reality what I mean is, "I want to use the computer (advocacy). Can I use it when you’re done?"

Another common challenge is omission or concentration on one type of speech. As stated above, often framing of conversations is missing because we take for granted that everyone is one the same "page". We often begin conversations mid-stream without testing if our starting point is correct or this is the direction others think is suitable for the issue at hand. Similarly, we can overemphasize one type of speech. Some people always ask questions (inquiry) and never state they intentions (advocacy) others the reverse. Another variation is people who state a position (advocacy), but do not provide examples (illustration).

The parts of speech exercises are designed to highlight the difference between what we mean and what we actually say to one another. The purpose of the Parts of Speech for this class is not to advocate that you use them all the time (otherwise talking to one another would be excruciating), but rather to provide you an opportunity to experiment with new behavior.

II. The Fifth Discipline Handbook by Senge et al.

The Fifth Discipline Handbook was created by a group of consultants and academics at MIT to provide organizational development tools for professionals. Doing personality assessment in a group (e.g. MBTI) and communication skill building are both considered organizational development activities or interventions. Most workplaces conduct these types of activities on an ongoing basis or during times of turbulence and crisis. Below is their model for increasing communication skills. There are a few similarities between the two models since they both are designed to improve advocacy (making your position/opinion explicit) and inquiry (finding out more information).

Types of Telling

Testing: Here’s what I say what do you think of it?

Dictating: Here’s what I say, and never mind why? (dysfunctional)

Asserting: Here’s what I say and here’s why I say it.

Explaining: Here’s hoe the world works and why I come to see it that way.

Types of Observing

Bystanding: Making comments which pertain to the group process, but not to the content.

Sensing: Watching the conversation flow without saying much, but keenly aware of all that transpires.

Withdrawing: mentally checking out of the room, and not paying attention (dysfunction)

Types of Generating

Skillful discussion: (Balancing advocacy and inquiry genuinely curious, makes reasoning explicit, asks others about assumptions without being critical or accusing)

Dialogue: Suspending all assumptions creating a container in which collective thinking can emerge.

Politicking: Giving the impression of balancing advocacy and inquiry, while being close-minded (dysfunctional).


Interrogating: "Why can’t you see that your point of view is wrong?" (dysfunctional)

Clarifying: "What is the question we are trying to answer?"

Interviewing: Exploring others’ points of view, and reasons behind them.


  1. Protocols for Improved Advocacy

Making your thinking process visible (walk up the ladder of inference slowly).

What to do

What to say

State your assumptions, and describe the data that led to them.

"Here’s what I think, and here’s how I got there.

Explain your assumptions

"I assumed that…."

Make your reasoning explicit.

"I came to this conclusion because…"

Explain the context of your point of view: who will be affected by what you propose, how they will be affected and why.

"To get a clear picture of what I’m talking about, imagine that you’re the customer who will be affected…

As you speak, try to picture the other people’s perspective on what you are saying.

    Publicly test your conclusions and assumptions.

What to do

What to say

Encourage others to explore your model, your assumptions, and your data.

"What do you think about what I just said?" or "Do you see any flaws in my reasoning?" or "What can you add?"

Refrain from defensiveness when your ideas are questioned. If you’re advocating something worthwhile, then it will only get stronger by being tested.


Reveal where you are least clear in your thinking. Rather than making you vulnerable, it defuses the force of advocates who are opposed to you, and invites improvement.

"Here’s one aspect which you might help me think through…."

Even when advocating: listen, stay open, and encourage others to provide different views.

"Do you see it differently?"


II. Protocols for Improved Inquiry

    Ask others to make their thinking process visible.

What to do

What to say

Gently walk others down the ladder of inference and find out what data they are operating from.

"What leads you to conclude that?" "What data do you have for that?" "What causes you to say that?"

Use un-aggressive language, particularly with people who are not familiar with these skills. Ask in a way that does not provoke defensiveness or "lead the witness".

Instead of "What do you mean?" or "What’s your proof?" say, "Can you help me understand your thinking here?"

Draw out reasoning. Find out as much as you can about why they are saying what they ‘re saying.

"What is the significance of that?" "How does this relate to your other concerns?" "Where does your reasoning go next?"

Explain your reasons for inquiring, and how your inquiry relates to your own concerns, hopes, and needs.

"I’m asking you about assumptions here because…"

    Compare your assumptions to theirs.

What to do

What to say

Test what they say by asking for broader contexts, or for examples.

"How would you proposal affect..?" "Is this similar to …?" "Can you describe a typical example…?"

Check your understanding of what they have said.

"Am I correct that you’re saying?"

Listen for the new understanding that may emerge. Don’t concentrate on preparing to destroy the other person’s argument or promote your own agenda.