Mastering Negative Inquiry: An Advanced Listening Skill for Navigating Criticism


In the midst of our polarized society, refining advanced listening skills has taken on heightened importance. The ability to navigate intense anger and criticism without succumbing to defensiveness is a vital life skill that can foster understanding across diverse realms, such as race, gender identity, and politics. Particularly crucial is the mastery of the art of listening when individuals fueled by a sense of injustice and a lifetime of racialized trauma share their experiences. Demonstrating a capacity to listen without defensiveness to the pain and anger of others, especially those who have faced systemic racism, demands emotional maturity. In this context, the imperative of mastering advanced listening skills becomes evident.

Negative Inquiry: The Goal

In a recent blog post, I discussed fogging as a helpful listening skill when facing criticism, emphasizing the importance of agreeing with the truth of another without compromising integrity. Another crucial skill is negative inquiry, aimed at transforming a critic into a coach rather than an opponent. This skill is most effective when combined with other listening techniques, as outlined in my book, Thrive: The Facilitator’s Guide to Radically Inclusive Meetings, 2nd ed.

The essence of negative inquiry lies in urging the critic to specify the behaviors that are causing their distress. Often, criticism comes in broad generalizations, making it challenging to address the underlying issues. Negative inquiry seeks to turn vague criticisms into actionable insights.

Structure of Negative Inquiry

Negative inquiry involves asking targeted questions that extract specific details from the critic. An example:

Critic: “You’re a very poor facilitator.”

Listener: “I understand you think I could be a better facilitator. What specifically do you wish I would improve?”

Critic: “You got us started fifteen minutes late. We wasted time socializing.”

Listener: “Is there anything else about my facilitation that concerns you?”

Critic: “You didn’t welcome everyone. How can you start a meeting and not greet everyone?”

Listener: “Anything else?”

By filling in missing details through these questions, negative inquiry allows for a clearer understanding of the specific behaviors causing concern.

Benefits of Negative Inquiry

Beyond its utility in addressing criticism, negative inquiry offers the added benefit of calming the nerves of both critic and criticized. By transforming the cycle of criticism and counter-criticism into a learning experience, it encourages a constructive dialogue rather than a defensive reaction.


In a society marked by division, the mastery of advanced listening skills, including negative inquiry, is a powerful tool for fostering understanding and resolving conflicts. By embracing these skills, we can transform criticism into opportunities for growth and collaboration.

For more insights and resources on conflict resolution and inclusive meetings, visit my website at Feel free to reach out via email at or give me a call at 425.405.5615. I am committed to personally responding to every inquiry.

Dr. Mark Smutny, an award-winning author and nonprofit consultant, specializes in conflict resolution services and guides nonprofits toward mission success. His book, “Thrive: The Facilitator’s Guide to Radically Inclusive Meetings, 2nd Ed.,” offers valuable insights into creating inclusive and effective meeting spaces.