Aries Analysis And Tools Outline

On this page you will find:

  1. ARIES Analysis– Outlines the ARIES Analysis process for helping you to make sense of a contentious issue and think-through how you might speak about the issue to stakeholders


  1. Identifying a suitable issue– Offers guidance on choosing and specifying issues that you might apply ARIES with


  1. Attending: the Observation/Inference Table – A tool for helping keep us grounded in noticing, observing aspects of an issue without rushing to judgment


  1. Reflection: the Reflection Matrix – This tool is for developing hypotheses as to what an issue might “look like” from different stakeholder perspectives, including your own, as a basis for testing


  1. Inquiring: 5-Type Question Framework – An aid to identifying powerful questions that might usefully be put to stakeholders


  1. Expressing Tool – A tool for organizing and developing your thoughts on what you might say to stakeholders on an issue, so as to advance efforts to build shared meaning


  1. Synthesizing: The Transformational Challenge and Relational Challenge – Tools for framing current realities and a preferred future with an issue, in ways that can be held out for testing with others, and for framing specific matters on which shared meaning needs to be developed


Illustrations of applying the ARIES Framework in different contexts can be found at the ARIES Case Stories page.

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Often when working with contentious issues, things can seem stuck, blocked. People might be shut down, angry, or just acting in ways that don’t make a lot of sense to us. It can be hard to figure out what’s going on and to identify and assess possibilities for action. If you find yourself in such a situation it can be puzzling, frustrating, stressful - and disempowering.

ARIES is a set of practices and tools designed to help bring a degree of order, clarity, and structure to your thinking about such situations, and to help you in working through where, and how, you might intervene.

While ARIES doesn’t offer any easy fixes, it does provide a means to help you gain some perspective on the issue; to “see” it from different perspectives, contemplate what might lie underneath, consider what you might say to others, and imagine a situation with the issue either overcome or with significant headway made.

A cornerstone of this work is that contentious issues imply potentially as many perspectives as there are stakeholders. This is not just a matter of thinking of the other interested groups and individuals. Just as they bring their various mindsets and predispositions to the issue, so do you. Accordingly, understanding an issue more fully is in good part a matter of becoming clearer about the thoughts, feelings, and experience that you, as the “case owner” bring to it. (A case owner, in ARIES terms, is anyone applying the framework to help make sense of an issue.)

An ARIES analysis is performed in relation to a reasonably specific incident or series of events that we have had some direct involvement in. Usually, ARIES is used as an aid in preparing for some kind of action, such as a meeting, “difficult conversation,” or presentation. We use the incident or events to serve as a “window” onto the larger issue/s. The proposition is that key features of the broader issue are reflected in the specific matters that we direct our attention to.

We use ARIES with a particular incident or episode to look into:

  • What is actually observable, directly perceivable in the situation – as distinct from what might be inferred (Attending)


  • How the issue might look to the other/s involved (Reflecting). Here we use the Reflection Matrix tool to develop ideas about possible unspoken assumptions, interests, feelings, and knowledge for the various stakeholders


  • Important questions you might put to particular stakeholders (from the Inquiring practice, using the 5-types question structure)


  • What you might say to particular stakeholders so as to open-up the issues, allow you to communicate what you need to get across, and support deeper sharing of thoughts and feelings (from the Expressing practice, with its template for preparing an outline presentation)


  • How you might frame a definition of the desired shift, the change to be achieved, in a way that you could hold out for testing with the other parties (from the Synthesizing practice, with the Transformational Challenge tool).


Using ARIES as a tool to aid sense-making on an issue enables you to:

  • Be present, in-the-moment with the issue; alert to what is occurring at this time and what possibilities are emerging; without having your assessment clouded by premature judgment and evaluation


  • Stand back; adopt a broader perspective instead of seeing the issue only from your own standpoint, ARIES helps you to step into the shoes of others with an interest. One key is to imagine what the issue might look like to reasonable stakeholders. A second key is that any assessments you come up with need to be testable with them


  • Delve more deeply into the issue, to surface and explore underlying aspects, while containing threat. Framing deep-reaching questions is a counter to the common tendency to concern ourselves with finding solutions (which may mean we deal with the issues at only a superficial level)


  • Speak up on the issue in ways that promote reflection and engagement – rather than getting caught up in seeing your own view as necessarily correct, and seeking to win-over others to it – which may lead to them pushing back


  • Frame shared understandings which can be held out for response by others, rather than assuming that everyone is “on the same page’ only to find out later that perhaps they are not.




ARIES can potentially be helpful with just about any issue having a leadership and change dimension, whether in an organization, group, or community context.

Here are some examples of problems where the approach can help the “case owner” to understand what’s occurring and to identify and assess possible interventions. While most of the examples concern people in reasonably senior roles, ARIES can potentially be used by people at pretty much any level.

Case owner: President of a manufacturing firm, electronics
A large-scale work reorganization is introduced and after three months, things seem to be going well. Then the union suddenly demands a meeting with management to voice concerns. What’s going on here and what opportunities might there be?

Case owner: Head of school in a university
With a faculty restructure, one academic unit will need to be shifted to another part of the university. While there are potentially interesting prospects here for the unit, unit members seem to be reluctant to explore these prospects

Case owner: MD of an aged-care services provider
The MD wants to make changes to plans to redevelop some of the organization’s physical facilities. They board says they endorse her proposed changes but are dragging their feet in signing off on the changes.

Case owner: internal HR consultant
The VP of HR wants to introduce an organization-wide mentoring program; but the divisions tell the internal consultant they don’t want to do this. The consultant is caught in the middle.

Case owner: VP of technology firm
The VP is aware that the engagement manager is organizing many group activities; e.g. team lunches and awards. Yet morale seems to be low across the board. What’s going on?

These are just a few glimpses of the kinds of issues that ARIES can be useful in exploring. Just about any leadership- and change-related issue in virtually any organization or group setting could be a candidate for the application of the framework.

At this point, you might have in mind an issue that you could apply ARIES with, to better make sense of present realities and possibilities.

A suitable issue is likely to be:

  • Current, “live,” and real to you
  • Significant in its impact on you/your group/your organization, without being overwhelming
  • Fairly specific, so that you can connect to it and see yourself taking action; the issue is not “too big.”
  • An issue that you care about; that you want to make headway with and where you believe you can potentially make worthwhile progress.

One way to help make an issue more concrete is to think of a significant and recent incident or event that seems to encapsulate some key aspects of it.




Imagine that you have been asked to give a “short burst” describing your issue, to someone who knows nothing about it. Try writing up to a page or two that includes:

  • A “summary overview” – in about one paragraph
  • An outline of the relevant organizational context and background
  • A description of an incident or series of events that, to you, illustrates key facets of the issue.

A hint: try to make the outline of your issue as descriptive as possible; i.e. without including judgments of other people or their motives and intentions.

Summary overview (my issue concerns):

Relevant context/background

Description of a specific incident or series of events



Now, if you’ve given some thought to your issue, you’re ready to start applying the ARIES framework to it.

And remember, you can see examples of worked-up ARIES analyses at the ARIES Case Stories page.


The Attending component of ARIES is designed to ground us in the present moment, and to help us just notice, observe without judgment what is occurring in relation to the issue currently and what potentials and possibilities are emerging. The Observation and Inference Table is a (deceptively) simple structure to help us in distinguishing between what we perceive directly, and conclusions and judgments we form based on our perceptions.




  1. Think about a few key aspects of your issue that are observable, directly discernable, and write them down in the column headed “Observations,” below.
    1. Obviously, you can’t record everything that you notice. Focus on those aspects that seem especially interesting or significant, and which could be interpreted in different ways.
    2. Try to adopt the standpoint of an impartial yet informed observer (someone who can see what’s going on, but who doesn’t influence the action).
  1. For each observation you record, think of – and write down – at least a couple of different possible inferences (interpretations) in the next column. The inferences don’t have to be likely, just possible. The aim is to help us loosen our attachment to particular ways of making sense of the issue, and to bring forth other possibilities. 



 Possible Inferences














When you first look at this exercise, you might think it straightforward. Yet many find, when they actually try to do this with an issue, that distinguishing observation from inference in particular situations can be quite tricky. This realization points to the subconscious and largely automatic nature of much of our mental processing. What we are endeavoring to do here is to help make our processes of perceiving and interpreting more conscious, more deliberate.









The Reflecting component is intended to help us take a step back and to contemplate what the issue might look like to the various interested parties – ourselves included. The aim is to develop possible interpretations for testing and exploration with the others involved. Using the Reflection Matrix tool, following, we imagine what might be implicit, hidden, undeclared for these stakeholders – “below the waterline of the iceberg” – allowing that they are capable of acting reasonably. We focus on hidden content in 4 key areas:


 Reflection Matrix dimensions


 Hidden assumptions
 What people take for granted, as given regarding the issue

 Hidden interests
 What people value in this context; what they want to protect

 Hidden feelings
 The emotions others are likely to feel, but not declare, in relation to this issue

 Hidden knowledge
 Relevant knowledge and insight that others may hold, by virtue of their backgrounds and experience


  1. Identify one or two key stakeholders (individuals or groups) for inclusion – in addition to yourself or your own group
  2. On tables such as those following, write-in the names of these stakeholders in place of “Stakeholder 1”, “Stakeholder 2” (and as many other stakeholders as you want) on the left
  3. For each stakeholder /group, note a few points to identify possible hidden assumptions, hidden interests, hidden feelings and hidden knowledge (using a different page for each stakeholder). This is your assessment of what might be hidden for them.

Points to keep in mind

  • Make sure you include yourself/your own group as a stakeholder. Chances are that you have hidden mental resources relevant to the issue, too!
  • Avoid agonizing too much over the content of the matrix: it’s better to get down a few points and perhaps refine these later
  • Keep in mind the reasonableness principle. The whole point is to develop possible interpretations for testing, so you should only include content which is consistent with regarding stakeholders as reasonable, in this context at least
  • Not all the items you write down will be equally important in your account. Mark with an asterisk – or in whatever way works for you – those items you think are likely to be most critical in helping you develop hypotheses about what is real for stakeholders.



Hidden Assumptions

Hidden Interests

Hidden Feelings

Hidden Knowledge

  Your assessment of what the stakeholder might take as given Your assessment of what might be important to the stakeholder; what they value or want to protect Your assessment of what the stakeholder might be feeling but not saying Your assessment of what the stakeholder might know but have not declared

Stakeholder 1 (write-in name)




Hidden Assumptions

Hidden Interests

Hidden Feelings

Hidden Knowledge

  Your assessment of what the stakeholder might take as given Your assessment of what might be important to the stakeholder; what they value or want to protect Your assessment of what the stakeholder might be feeling but not saying Your assessment of what the stakeholder might know but have not declared

Stakeholder 2 (write-in name)




Hidden Assumptions

Hidden Interests

Hidden Feelings

Hidden Knowledge

  Your assessment of what you might take as given in this context Your assessment of what might be important to you; what you value or want to protect Your assessment of what you might be feeling but not saying Your assessment of what you might know but have not declared

Your self-assessment





The inquiring component of an ARIES analysis involves the case owner (you, in this case) in framing vital questions; those that in the particular context are likely to foster joint exploration of the fundamental dimensions of the issue, toward achieving positive change.

The Attending and Reflecting parts of the ARIES process should help in yielding-up such questions. A task then is to find ways to express those questions so as to minimize the prospect of hostile responses by others.


Inquiring: 5 Types of Question

Question Type


Verifying your understanding of what is being communicated

Gathering and Clarifying
Seeking more information to expand or flesh out understandings and/or to clarify meanings

Delving into underlying thoughts, feelings, values, beliefs and assumptions

Scrutinizing claims that others make by putting forward new information or observations and seeking their response; examining the inferences that we draw from other’s words and actions

Seeking to clarify what the future may hold in relation to a topic of inquiry (including both desired results and unintended possibilities)


  1. Write down an initial set of questions, up to about ten, that spring to mind regarding your ARIES case. Aim to focus on “deep-reaching” questions – those that will help reveal some of the potential hidden mental resources relevant to the issue
  2. Review your questions with a view to improving or replacing them. For each question, consider:
    1. What is your purpose in asking it?
    2. How effective is the question likely to be in terms of opening-up the underlying dimensions of the issue?
    3. How might the question be revised or improved so as to make it both potent yet relatively safe to ask?
  3. You might find it helpful also to categorize your intended questions using the question-type framework, though this is an option. Doing so helps ensure that you are asking a range of types of question, not mainly questions of a single type.


 Deep-reaching questions for my case

 Question Type (optional)













The expressing component provides an opportunity to think through and rehearse what you might say to specific stakeholders. You will presumably want to be influential in what you say but part of the challenge is to speak to the issue holistically; to acknowledge other perspectives while not dismissing them, and to avoid getting caught up in presenting your truth as “the” truth. A key element is to put forward your thoughts and feelings in ways that enable you to remain open to other views. Using provisional language can be helpful here; for instance, “what I notice”, “it seems to me.”

Also important is disclosing some of what might you might have held back on to this point (as long as you do so in ways that attribute reasonableness to others and that model authenticity on your part). Sharing some of your hidden domain helps make it easier for others to open-up to you.

Creating a short “script”, using the Expressing structure below, may help you in working out what to include in a verbal presentation and how best to put it forward.






Outlining the context for your remarks, the topic you’d like to talk about, and your purpose in speaking up

Asserting and supporting

Putting forward the key elements in your case and any reasoning and evidence to back them up – and doing so in ways that demonstrate awareness of other perspectives on the issue


Presenting relevant stories/ examples/illustrations/anecdotes to “color-in” your arguments


Making explicit relevant assumptions, interests, feelings and knowledge that you might not otherwise state


Creating opportunities for others to respond to what you have said


  1. Imagine an opportunity has come up to speak for a few minutes to a stakeholder on an issue of concern to you.
  2. Using the template following, identify and register the most important points you wish to convey under each heading – just a few dot points rather than carefully crafted sentences.
  3. There is no need to work through the elements in sequence, either in preparing your script or presenting your ideas. That said, it is generally a good idea when using this framework to begin with “introducing” and conclude with “inviting.” You can use these elements as “bookends” for whatever else you might say.


Introducing: Outlining the context for your remarks, naming the topic/s you’d like to talk about, and declaring your purpose in speaking up



Asserting and supporting: Putting forward the key elements in your case and any reasoning and evidence to back them up – and doing so in ways that demonstrate awareness of other perspectives on the issue



Illuminating: Presenting relevant stories/examples/illustrations/anecdotes to “color-in” your arguments



Disclosing: Making explicit relevant assumptions, interests, feelings and knowledge that you might not otherwise state



Inviting: Creating opportunities for others to respond to what you have said



Once you have prepared your script, review it in terms of how well it represents a relational stance:

  • How effectively are your introductory points likely to engage the listener?
  • To what extent is the tone provisional – open to other perspectives as opposed to expressing certainty?
  • How effectively have you disclosed your own (otherwise hidden) assumptions, interests, feelings and knowledge?


Remember, your Expressing script is just a preparation aid. It can help you in getting ready for an opportunity to put your ideas forward. But when the time actually comes, you need to be able to “hold the script lightly” and be present with the others involved. This may require that you let go of your script altogether, and just engage with what is unfolding in the present moment.




The synthesizing component in preparing an ARIES analysis is in capturing the essence of the leadership and change-related challenges to be faced. Two particular tools (from Chapter 10 of In the Leadership Mode), are the Transformational Challenge and the Relational Challenge. The Transformational Challenge represents the major shift that needs to occur; a progression from the present order of things to a preferred future state. A Relational Challenge refers to a critical hurdle that needs to be overcome for the Transformational Challenge to be realized, allowing that there can be more than one Relational Challenge. Defining each of these challenges draws on the analysis conducted so far and paves the way for the identification of action strategies.

The Transformational Challenge


The Transformational Challenge is defined in “from” – “to” terms; as a shift “from” a present state of affairs with the issue, “to” a desired future condition, with the issue substantially overcome or with significant headway made. Critically, it is framed in terms that reflect a creative synthesis of the various perspectives. This statement represents a “book-ending” of the change needed; it defines the “what’s” of change with this issue, not the “how’s”.



Begin by trying to craft a statement that represents an integration of current realities on the issue. Aim to frame your statement as an invisible observer might. Avoid judgment and negative attributions – but also be prepared to name and describe difficult or uncomfortable aspects of the issue.

Your “from” statement should capture not only the more concrete aspects of the issue, but also some of the more subtle, implicit aspects – such as the kinds of hidden content you have begun to draw out with the Reflection Matrix.


FROM: A definition of current realities on the issue, reflecting the range of stakeholder perspectives



Now, in defining a preferred future on the issue, you should again try to integrate different perspectives. Set your definition not as a utopian ideal, but as what might reasonably be achieved over a few months by hard-working, committed people.


TO: A definition of a preferred future on the issue, again reflecting the range of views



While you can begin at any time “playing around” with a definition of the Transformational Challenge for an issue, capturing a definition that all stakeholders will relate to usually implies the need for several conversations first.

Relational Challenge


We name a Relational Challenge when we specify a particular matter on which we and others need to achieve shared understandings, in order to make progress with a contentious problem.

This is not simply a piece of work or task to be achieved, but a specific issue that is seen differently by stakeholders and for which no single strategy can be confidently applied. Setting down one or more relational challenges serves as an antidote to the common preoccupation in planning processes with tasks to be achieved.

The general form of a Relational Challenge can be thought of as: “To achieve shared understandings with X (individual or group) on Y (specific matter) in order to achieve Z (desired outcome).

What might be a Relational Challenge for you in connection with the issue you are dealing with?



You can see examples of specifying a Relational Challenge in the ARIES Case Stories presented on this site.

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