A large part of my practice involves meeting with people in formal settings, this can be in working meeting, running workshops, or in one-on-ones. During a recent feedback session, in a workshop I was running, I noticed how several of the participants had a difficulty to communicate their ideas clearly. When some presented their ideas, they did not give a context, talked in an unstructured way, or did not actually proposing something actionable. It was a shame as they had something important say, but somehow, they couldn’t get it across to their colleagues and their ideas were lost. 

To overcome this, I think that it is worth considering an approach that leans on the concept of the ‘Four Parts of Speech’. This concept comes from Bill Torbert, an expert in co-inquiry, who identified in his book The Power of Balance that:

‘…all our speaking in daily, professional, and intimate conversations can be understood and practiced as efforts to communicate in … four territories of experience. Looked at this way, all conversation and public utterance is an effort, implicitly or explicitly, to communicate:

(1) a frame – the assumptions that bound the conversation, the “name of the game,” the purpose of speaking;

(2) an advocacy – a particular goal to be achieved, an abstract assertion about perception or action;

(3) an illustration – a concrete example, a colourful story; and

(4) an inquiry – an invitation to respond, an effort to determine the effects of one’s action (one’s speaking) or others’ perspectives on the matter.’ (Torbert, 1991, p.233)

By applying these four elements and following their order in our communications we can better explain ourselves. Indeed, the ‘Four Parts of Speech’ provides a useful verbal tool that helps people to communicate with clarity and self-mastery (and I consider can also be used to structure many written communications). So, whenever you are looking to communicate your ideas, structure your comments in the following way:

1). Framing: Firstly, we need to frame what we are talking (or writing) about. A scene setting that presents the background, origins and the purpose of the intervention. Ask yourself: what should my audience know so that they can understand the overall context?

2). Advocating: Here we should elaborate our main point. Essentially, what is your view on the issues you’ve raised? What do you recommend is the action to be taken? Ask yourself: what, clearly, is your proposition?

3). Illustrating: This is where we give colour to our proposals? It means supplying a reasoning or giving examples of why you think what you do and why you’ve proposed what you proposed. Ask yourself: what best illustrates how my proposition is a good one?

4). Inquiring: Lastly, and many people forget this, to have an open dialogue and to find out what others think on our proposals and reasoning, we need to close with an inquiring question that invites feedback and helps to receive advice. Being open to others ideas is a crucial part of dialogue and in defining a way ahead. Ask yourself: how can I openly invite people to comment on my ideas?

This approach supports reciprocal, mutual inquiry with others by helping everyone to effectively frame their conversations, advocate their ideas well, illustrate why they think this idea is good, and, importantly, to inquire more openly. In meetings following this practice should help with both the effectiveness and efficiency of discussions and, hopefully, to enhance clarity in organisational decision-making. It is a personal practice in clear communication, one that can be done quite easily and, where it becomes effectual, encourages others to imitate it. Go on, try it out.


Source: Torbert, W. (1991). The power of balance: Transforming self, society, and scientific inquiry. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

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