Ensure you think things through using the “Common Topics”

Signs that your team needs to better think things through:

Think things through: Govern de les Illes Balears, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
  • You don’t meet to discuss it and instead decide on your own.
  • You do meet to discuss it but have no disagreement in the room.
  • The meeting is short or feels like checking a box instead of having a discussion.
  • There is little silence during the meeting. 
  • There are few questions during the meeting.
  • After the meeting, you find yourself saying, “We didn’t think about how [insert a factor here] would impact our decision.” 
  • You realize that what you meant by a certain word was not what others in the team meant by it. 
  • You have to have another meeting, rehashing what you thought you agreed on in the first meeting.

If any of these symptoms resonate with you, this post has one of the classical Lost Tools of Business to help you think things through. 

Communicating, Persuading, Uniting

“It was so useful to just get another perspective.”

Clients say that all the time. But the funny thing: I rarely give them my perspective. As a professional coach trained in a program endorsed by the International Coach Federation, I never give opinions and often don’t even make observations. 

So how do clients receive fresh perspectives? I ask questions around five words borrowed from the ancient Greeks.

Previously we discussed dialectic. It is the art of wrestling to the truth—a “liberal art.” It is “liberal” in that it is for liberated people. A classically educated person resists becoming a slave. They resist being swayed by their own passions … by emotional but illogical arguments … by diabolical leaders. 

Another liberal art, rhetoric, is at its best the opposite of such attempts to sway. 

If the word “rhetoric” conjures up images of modern politicians attacking each other or delivering emotional but meaningless speeches, park that concept and meet the real thing:

Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Wikipedia tells me they used to think this was Cato. Don’t you kind of want to know this guy?

Quintillian was a great Roman orator and teacher of rhetoric. In his 12-volume textbook on the art, he defined the orator in a phrase borrowed from Cato the Elder: “the good man, skilled at speaking.” Yes, it is about being a good communicator. But only if you assume that communication comes from a good heart and not a desire to manipulate. 

Even when Cato introduced the “good man” phrase, rhetoric was already an ancient art. Aristotle had defined it as “finding the available means of persuasion.” 

And long before Aristotle came Homer. The Iliad, on its face an epic poem about war, intersperses scenes of action with various speeches and discussions. War councils. Recruitment efforts. Gods guiding mortals to good decisions. Generals inspiring troops. Lots of people communicating, influencing others to unite and take action. Scholars like Andrew Kern contend Homer meant the poem as a textbook on rhetoric. 

The Embassy to Achilles from The story of the Iliad, 1892: A. J. Church, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Fellow generals attempt to recruit Achilles to rejoin the war effort.

Do you need skill at speaking? Are you seeking to persuade? Are you uniting your “troops” to action? Rhetoric is the art for you. 

But there is overlap between the arts. Those seeking to communicate, persuade or unite must have a clear view of what’s true in the situation they seek to address. Before you speak, you better know what you are talking about. 

That takes the “wrestle” covered in a previous section, the liberal art of dialectic. 

In fact, a rhetorical exercise can help your dialectic.

Five Places to Look

Practicing rhetoric involved five canons, or guiding principles. The first is the Canon of Invention. By Invention, the ancients meant “inventory,” taking stock of everything you know about a subject. 

One way to do this involves what Aristotle called the topoi

We can translate the word as “topics.” Think “topographical” maps: They allow us to study a subject from five different elevations—five different perspectives. 

Mt. Olympus: Edo de Roo, CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Each elevation, each topography, gives you a different perspective. (This is Mt. Olympus.)

The five topoi:

  1. Definition
  2. Comparison
  3. Circumstance
  4. Relationship
  5. Testimony

Memorizing these five words arms you with questions that ensure clarity: You can cover all (five) facets of whatever it is you are studying. 

It works by asking open-ended questions that allow you and your team to explore the topic. You aren’t looking to get specific answers. You are looking to ensure you’ve examined all the pertinent issues related to your subject. 

Some Questions to Think Things Through

Here are some sample questions for each of the five topics. I’ve used letters x, y and z as placeholders. So if you need to wrestle with, say, improving employee morale, you might ask, “What do we mean by morale? … What are its elements?”

Since these topics apply to almost anything, replace x with your opportunity: increasing revenue … improving morale … choosing a vendor … decreasing expenses … strategic planning. … 

DEFINITION

  • What do we mean by x?
  • If x were in a category of things, what category would it be?
  • What elements make up x?

COMPARISON

  • How does x compare to y?
  • How does it contrast?
  • To what extent are the differences measured in degrees or in kind? (In other words, are these two things more of or less of something, or are they two different things all together?)

RELATIONSHIP

  • What is the relationship between x and z?
  • What causes x? What effect does x have?
  • If x occurs, what will be the results?
  • If x occurs, what will not occur? 

CIRCUMSTANCE

  • What circumstances lead to x?
  • When the things we most want about x are happening, what else is happening?
  • What would make x possible? Impossible?

TESTIMONY

  • What do experts say about x?
  • What do our past experiences tell us about x?

You could use these questions in your own planning time to think things through (an opportunity or decision you’ll need to make).

How It Works for Me 

It is also powerful to do with a group. Here is an example of what this exercise has looked like for me:

A management team had been working on improving their organization on some specific fronts. And some members of the team had quietly observed that they weren’t getting anywhere. No progress. 

So I invited the team to discuss six “topical” questions about that very word, “progress.”

  • How would you define progress?
  • What are the “parts” that make up progress?
  • How does progress compare to action? Contrast?
  • What is the relationship between planning and progress? Planning and thinking? 
  • What are the circumstances that lead to progress?
  • What examples have you experienced of a team making true progress? What happened? 

It was one of the team’s richest discussions to date—and it did not take up the entire meeting, either. The result was that the team identified two problem areas for themselves and came up with a plan to address them. 

Can you see the importance of asking questions from each of the five topics? The team had to agree on what they meant by “progress” so they could then develop a list of the elements of progress. And so on. 

Once they had talked this out, they reached not just consensus on what elements were missing from their organization but commitment to do something about it. 

In other words … they made progress. 

There is another benefit to using the common topics in meetings: You better develop your habit of asking good questions. That can grow your leadership in ways few other habits can touch. 

Hip Socket offers a handout of the above material. We hope it helps you ask better questions—and wrestle and grow in your understanding.