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Negative Inquiry

What is Negative Inquiry?

Negtive Inquiry is a way of dealing with criticism which Manuel J Smith put forward in his book in his book When I Say No, I Feel Guilty. It goes one step further than his suggested technique of negative assertion. Whereas negative assertion involves acknowledging mistakes or faults, negative inquiry involves actively inviting further or more detailed criticism.

As with other assertiveness techniques recommended by Smith, such as fogging and negative assertion, when using the technique of negative inquiry there are certain things you should not do:

Example of Negative Inquiry

Chloe and James are eating their evening meal together and James makes a comment about the way Chloe eats:

James (in an irritated, disgusted voice): 'Stop eating like that!'

Chloe (speaking calmly and curiously): 'I'm not sure I understand? What is it about the way I eat that creates a problem?' (Chloe invities clarification of the negative comment)

James: 'It's the way you chomp at the food.'

Chloe (still calm and curious): 'Oh - is it the noise I make or my mouth being open when I eat or something else?'

James: 'It's both of those things!'

Chloe (still calm): 'I see - the sound and the look of it aren't very nice. Will that create any additional problems?' (Chloe invites further negative comment, showing herself open to and accepting of criticism)

James: 'Our friends will think you haven't got any manners.'

Chloe (still calm): 'You mean I'm acting in a way that might make us lose friends?'

James (backing down a bit but then resuming his irritation): 'Not necessarily but it could be embarrassing for us. I don't know which way to look sometimes when you're eating.'

Chloe (still calm and curious): 'I'm not sure I fully understand - how would it be embarrassing for us?'

James: 'Well, I would feel embarrassed by it, that's all - I would prefer it if you didn't do it.

Chloe (reflecting and inviting further negative comment): 'I see - I'll think about it and see what I can do. Are there any other habits I have which cause a problem?'

James: 'Well, you do hold your knife and fork in rather a clumsy way.'

Chloe: Can you show me?'

James then demonstrates how Chloe holds her knife and fork.

Chloe (calm and curious still): 'I see - that way of holding a knife and fork might be seen as clumsy - and that could create similar potentially embarrassing situations could it?'

James (calm now): 'Yes - I would feel embarrassed by it. I would prefer it if you did it this way' (He demonstrates how he would like Chloe to hold the knife and fork).


In the above example, Chloe has used negative inquiry by calmly seeking further clarification about what aspects of her behaviour are seen by James as potentially problematic and why. This shows that she can handle the criticism and it takes the heat out of the situation, giving James no reason to get further agitated. It is important to note that in her inquiries, Chloe does not criticise James' views or suggest that it is a matter of his personal taste or preference. For example, she doesn't say: 'What is your problem with the way I eat?' which might imply that the issue is about his personal preference and would potentially focus attention on him rather than on her behaviour.

It is perhaps precisely because Chloe uses the neutral inquiring, puzzled questions rather than suggesting that it is a matter of James' personal preference, that the end result is that he himself acknowledges that it is a matter of his own personal preference and feelings and he explains clearly what he would like rather than haranguing her in an irritated judgemental way.

How is Negative Inquiry Useful?

Negative inquiry encourages the person who is being critical of you to be assertive rather than derogatory in their requests, which is likely to lead to a healthier form of communication. The technique helps to clarify what it is that the other person wants you to do and why. In the above example, the use of the technique helps to prompt James to express in a clearer and more polite way that he would like Chloe to eat more quietly and to hold her knife and fork differently because he feels embarrassed in the presence of others when she is eating like that. Now that he has expressed what he wants in this clearer way it is open to Chloe to decide whether to do what he requests or alternatively to explain to him that she doesn't want to do so or else to ask for something in return for him. In other words, negative inquiry has helped to create the possibility of a healthier more practical dialogue.

When to Use Negative Inquiry

Manuel Smith suggests that the negative inquiry technique works best in unstructured equal relationships such as conversations with people you are close to rather than in formal relationships. Potential benefits of using negative inquiry are that it can:

The best way to find out if it works in this way for you, is to try the technique out - but please remember not to be sarcastic if you do so and to try to use a tone of genuine inquiry.


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