Monday, January 19, 2009

A BIG Lesson

At this point in this series (started 12/29/2008) we have begun discuss ways to unilaterally lead conversation AWAY from unproductive advocacy debates and towards a collaborative flow of ideas that serve a mutual purpose. We are in the process of learning to direct collaborative discussions even as we participate in them. It seems a little unsettling, because it requires the practice of actually helping our counterparts strengthen their positions and finding flaws in our own, but that is the way it may go when you value the RESULT and the RELATIONSHIP more than “winning” an argument.

The most frequently asked question of me? “How do I do this when emotions are running high?” The message from last time was to build collaboration by building safety. This time, more details – ‘nuts and bolts’ stuff – both about building safety and trust AND how to keep emotions from interfering. I say “keep emotions from interfering” rather than “conduct a discussion without emotions” for good reason. Sometimes, the discussion IS about emotions. Sometimes, the trouble we have in speaking with each other IS mainly emotional. So we have to talk about them; we just don’t have to get swept away by them.

Let’s start with unilaterally building safety and trust. Why do we care if our counterpart feels safe in a discussion? We have all seen people bullied into doing someone else’s will, right? IT WORKS! So why not learn how to fillet your counterpart’s perspective, embarrass and humiliate them until they concede your position?

BECAUSE IT IS NOT ABOUT YOUR POSITION ANYMORE. It never was. It is about getting all the information out on the table. ALL of it (some of which is partially in your counterpart’s head). You want it given to you with willing assent. You want it given to you because you are going to do the right thing with it; something both of you want done and to do it right, we all have to know exactly what we are dealing with and we all have to participate willingly in a discussion about what the information means.

We already talked about how to sort through the CONTENT of the conversation (9/26 – 12/29) to challenge the data as a group. Now we are talking about CONDUCTING that conversation so that people will share and participate fully. So we need make a specific set of things known in every conversation we have. We need to live it and breathe it so that we are credible when we do. When asked, we need to know just what to say about any of the following items so we need to understand them thoroughly. I will now present about 20 concepts that you will come to know as your TOOLBOX in unilaterally conducting a collaborative critical discussion. I will give you the basics today, and refer back to them over the course of this series.

Defensiveness – This is why we care about safety. If the participants in a conversation feel adequately safe, they won’t feel defensive. If anyone, including you, starts to feel defensive the collaborative part of the discussion is over until YOU (the communications guy) restores safety.

Purpose – There are many purposes for having discussions, but the purposes for having COLLABORATIVE discussions are simple 1) to understand someone else’s point of view; 2) to express your OWN point of view (or facilitate someone else in doing so; 3) to work through differences (gaps) between each other’s perspectives.

Mutual Purpose – Mutual purpose is more specific than the purpose of the conversation (see “Purpose”). Mutual Purpose is what you stand to gain from fulfilling the purpose. For example, the purpose of a given conversation is to understand the other person’s perspective on a given issue. The Mutual Purpose at work might be that understanding their point of view may improve a relationship that you both care about, or that it may fill gaps in your knowledge of something that will help the company you both work for. If we don’t work for the same company, our Mutual Purpose may be celebrate their expertise or develop a relationship based on their credibility. You and your counterpart stand to gain if the Mutual Purpose is achieved and it is important that you learn to identify it and how to communicate it to your counterparts so that you are actively working together to achieve it.

RespectFour kinds of respect at work in collaboration and they are unilateral – your counterpart does NOT have to share them. 1) Respect for content – you respect that the thing you are talking about is worth talking about and that, since it is natural for people to have different perspectives on most things, respect that your current understanding of the content is ALWAYS just a starting place and that your mind could be changed at any moment IF you are successful in finding a piece of mind changing information. 2) Respect for process – you respect the fact that Plato and Aristotle argued over the principles contained in these lessons and that Aristotle and countless great minds since have refined them to the state they are in now. That most of the time, if we follow the principles of communication that we are learning, we will come to the very best answer. That advocacy is NOT the best way to resolve business issues, but collaboration yields better decisions and preserves and promotes good relationships. 3) Respect for counterpart – you respect that the counterpart (in the absence of diagnosed mental illness) is a rational human being and is doing their best to stay with you in the collaboration. The difficulties they seem to have are simply differences which they lack the skills to overcome but YOU POSSESS. You maintain curiosity about their perspective and you NEVER assume that they are malicious in their intention unless you have strong evidence. You treat them as if their ideas COULD be exactly correct, because you can’t determine otherwise until you fully understand them. 4) Respect for self – You respect that you are intelligent and have skills in communication that others desperately need. You share them. You don’t allow yourself to bully or be bullied, manipulate or be manipulated, judge or be judged. When your counterpart violates these rules, you address it with compassion understanding that they don’t know any other way, or they would use it.

Openness – Openness is the state in which you believe that your counterpart might be right and you might be wrong even if nothing you have heard YET indicates it. You are willing to be persuaded; even hopeful to be persuaded because if you are, it means you didn’t bail out too soon but held on until the ONE important piece of information was finally put into the collaborative “pot”.

Empathy – The state in which you are trying hard to see things from your counterpart’s perspective, even describing things that they haven’t mentioned that support their perspective. You recognize that they have a right to feel the way they do, even if you feel differently.

Curiosity – The state in which you continue to ask questions about why your counterpart holds a given belief until you understand why as fully as you can.

Presence – The state in which you are not distracted from the discussion, either by things going on around you, by the voice in your head, or by your desire to interrupt.

Engagement – The state in which you are really invested in your counterpart – you want nothing more than for all the information to be surfaced and a GREAT informed decision to be made.

Depth – The state in which you show willingness to ask – respectfully and humbly – about things beneath the surface (feelings, beliefs) that may be important to understanding each other.

Humility – Humility is the natural position to assume when you approach a discussion with curiosity, empathy, openness, and respect because you realize that you are FALLIBLE and could very well be wrong until you have used your skills to elicit all of the needed information. The opposite of arrogance, this is KEY in promoting safety.

Tentativeness – Like Humility, this is a state that promotes safety because it shows that you are not completely sure and are anxious to change your mind if you are changing it for good reason – that your mind is not made up until all of the information is available and has been vetted.

Recognizing unexpressed emotions – For now, we will say that like the three primary colors, there are three primary emotions (Fear, Anger, & Embarrassment) that people feel when threatened. Which ones, in what mix and proportion, to what degree, and how they are expressed vary due to the many variables that make us who we are as individuals. They are frequently expressed in collaborative critical discussions (withdrawal, name-calling, sarcasm, personal attacks, crying) when the sense of safety is removed. Learning to recognize them and use them as triggers to step out of the content conversation and into a safety creating conversation will be discussed in one or even two special newsletters.

Subverting Safety – There are things that you will learn how to suppress but your counterparts will do to you (either on purpose or because they are feeling emotional) that can throw a conversation into a tailspin. When your counterpart does these things, you may become defensive; you must first forgive them and then start rebuilding safety for YOURSELF. These things include:
***Judgment (You’re just saying that to hurt me! You always try to hurt me)
***Insincerity (I would never lie to you)
***Manipulation (You should go ask him and then tell me what he says)
***Threats (if you don’t, I’ll make it tough on you)
***Competition (Your idea will never win if you tell everyone about it’s weaknesses)
***Raising Voices – Many times, people raise their voice in a conversation as a signal that they don’t believe you are hearing them. Frequently they are right; while they are talking, you are not listening but waiting for them stop so you can say something. At that time, it is a great idea to NOT raise your voice in retaliation, but instead to pause and acknowledge that your mind has been racing to keep up with theirs. Repeat back what you think their position is an a respectful way, asking them to tell you if you have it right and if not, to clarify their position.

This may seem like a lot for one newsletter, but I am having a little surgery done and I am not positive that I will be able to write next Sunday night. I will be writing again soon, though – forgive me missing a week. Take the time to catch up.

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