Inside Out Thinking

Have you ever had one of those discussions where you start out trying to understand what somebody else would like and you end up in a bit of a tussle and wondering where things went wrong? Kendra and I occasionally get in a bit of a twist on this topic. It might go something like this:

Ian: Hey babe … what do you want for dinner? Pasta? Chicken? Lamb?
Kendra: I dunno … what do you want?
Ian: I asked you first!
Kendra: Well … do you want chicken?
Ian: I’m not going to tell you what I want until you tell me what you want.
Kendra: Be nice!
Ian: I’m trying to be nice … all I want to know is what you really want for dinner!

During this discussion I might be thinking something like … “I really want to make Kendra what she wants but she won’t tell me”, and Kendra might be thinking something like “I don’t really have a preference so I’d rather Ian be happy”. But we don’t say those things … instead we use language that actually moves in the other direction towards disconnection instead of harmony. We do eventually get it straight, but I wonder if it wouldn’t just be easier if the conversation went like this:

Ian: Hey babe … what do you want for dinner? My only wish tonight is that you get what you want.
Kendra: I would feel selfish if I did that. I want you to enjoy dinner as well.
Ian: That’s nice of you! Can you make a couple of suggestions?
Kendra: I’m thinking chicken or salmon.
Ian: We haven’t had fish for a while … let’s do salmon!
Kendra: Okay!

Shadows ... merely a hint of what something is really about
Shadows … merely a hint of what something is really about

What’s different between those two conversations? The first one is focused on what the other person might be thinking (outside-in) while the second is more focused on expressing our own feelings (inside-out. By expressing those inside feelings outwardly it makes it easier for the other party to participate in a similar manner.

This week’s good read is a book by Ronald Short titled “Learning in Relationship”. The concept illustrated by the conversation above is the core of the book.

A part of the book is a series of exercises that help us identify this at work in our own lives. In it we are asked to think of an organization we are a part of by defining all of the relationships we have in that organization. This could be at work, at home, in the community anywhere. It then asks us to focus on one person in that organization and articulate how changing the relationship with that person would change the organization. It then takes us through a series of exercises about why we believe they act the way they do, how we feel about that person, how we believe they feel about us and then examine all of that information with a lens of truth. It is amazing to look at the collection of information we have and to understand that the only thing that we know is true is what we feel.

What was quite insightful for me was that my mind (or indeed perhaps my heart) took me to thinking about an organization quite close to me … my birth family. Our family has always been rather loosely formed. We all live in different cities across the country. Our parents certainly believed in independence and taught us that value well, as we each have quite separate lives and don’t feel a strong need to be in touch more than a few times a month. Over time, the family has gotten bigger with the addition of nieces and nephews, new marriages, etc. and recently gotten smaller when our parents passed away.

Strong and imposing on the outside ...
Strong and imposing on the outside …

The passing of one’s parents is a seminal time … one where you realize that the basic nature of the family has totally shifted and the siblings are now the new “heads of state”. In this new state, my older sister and I have drifted apart and I miss being in touch with her. I realize reading this book that outside-in thinking is likely at work on both sides. What unexplored assumptions and misconceptions are we harbouring about the other person and how this came to be? When I think about it we have rarely in our lives sat and shared how one feels and inquired about how the other feels. It seems to me that it is time to invite that conversation.

How many times does this happen in our lives, particularly in our working lives? Work isn’t a place where we think about being open about ourselves and inviting others to be the same. This idea of inside-out inquiry isn’t about sharing personal details or other information that isn’t necessary in the office. It means being open about how we feel in our one-to-one relationships and asking for the same feedback from the other.

Often we might say (or more likely just think and stew on) something like “it feels like you are leaving me out of an important discussion and its ticking me off” (outside-in thinking). What if that conversation went more like “we haven’t spoken for a while and I’m feeling like I might have done something wrong. I would like to understand what’s going on.”

The first conversation might invoke a response along the lines of “don’t be so paranoid. Nobody is out to get you.” And we are no further ahead, perhaps even a little more disconnected.

The second conversation is more likely to encourage a dialogue-based inquiry. It might invite a response something like “you know I’ve been feeling a bit distant as well and I think it’s more me. I’ve been really busy lately and not really feeling like I have time for anybody.” Which might then lead to “I’m both sorry and glad to hear that. Sorry that you are feeling overwhelmed and glad that there’s nothing between us. Do you think we can find a time for a coffee soon?”

... much more complex on the inside
… much more complex on the inside

What stops us from having these more essential, inquiry based conversations? I think it is that vulnerability thing again. It feels risky to put how we feel on the line. But here’s the rub … In order to move forward in this new form of conversation someone has to start! Who should that be?

I’m thinking this is a great time for some essential leadership. Can’t this be our form of of inquiry with our team members? Instead of asking “hey where are you at on that pricing analysis?” … which may make someone feel defensive … could we ask “I’m feeling ill-prepared for the meeting with the customer next week. Think I can get some of your time to help me with that?” What if we approached more discussions with inside-out thinking instead of task-based inquiry? What would happen to our relationships, our collaboration and our collective job satisfaction?

I’m not done with this one yet as I think it is a big shift and one that will require a lot of practice. But it is something that makes a lot of sense to me and I see promise in. How about you?

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Ian Munro @

Ian Munro is a leadership and vitality coach with a primary passion for working with senior professionals who wish to improve their connection to and vitality in their career, or who wish to make a transition to a meaningful and rewarding retirement. His methods are focused on helping clients understand why they present as they do in day-to-day life, discover their authentic self and give themselves permission to build a meaningful and rewarding future, both professional and personal. Ian’s love for this work has developed naturally as he built his career as an executive and leader in the IT services industry, serving in many roles and facets of this industry over 25 years. As he reached the pinnacle of his career he began to search more deeply for meaning and alternate rewards from his own career and to begin to plan for his own “first retirement”.

7 thoughts on “Inside Out Thinking

  1. I like this Ian. When I’m at the top of my game I do practice inside-out inquiry, when I’m not at my best (nicest way I could think of saying this) I am more likely to communicate in an outside-in style. This sudden awareness alone is quite revealing to me! Do I have to feel confident to practice inside-out inquiry? Does Outside-in thinking mean that I am afraid to put too much of myself out there?

    I love the illustration you use at the beginning – you and Kendra are adorable!

  2. Very interesting post, especially as we (or at least I ) tend to centre on the other person, trying to second guess them, thinking I am doing the correct thing (ie: thinking I am being empathetic) and yet because I never ever really let them know how I am thinking I let go of the opportunity to be more open and communicative. I think your inside-out approach has a lot of positives to it.

  3. I enjoyed this post. I have learned a lot from my brother-in-law Murray about this approach over the years. It is a struggle to do it right, but well worth it if you can. I definitely am a work in progress when it comes to actual implementation.

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