3: Conversation Map and Milestones

An unfortunate reaction to disagreements is for each party to assume that they are right and the other is wrong - particularly when they take opposite sides, logic holds that if one is true, the other must be false.

But human perception is based on perspective: your knowledge and experience leads you to believe that something is true, but the other person's knowledge and experience leads them to believe in a different truth. Their version of "the truth" just as correct to them as your version seems to you. Even when each of you is basing your version on fact, the facts you have witnessed and the way you interpret them are unique.

Another mistake is approaching a discussion as if your goal is to convince the other person to abandon their truths and adopt yours instead. Not only does this make the interaction confrontational, but it ignores an important possibility: maybe it's you who are wrong, and need to change your perspective to theirs.

So instead of approaching the conversation as if it is a competition with an opponent and a goal of replacing their ideas with your own, consider it as an exploration in which you will work together to discover a version of the truth to which you can both agree - and being as open to their perspective as you want them to be to your own.

The "DREAM" Approach

The author suggests a five-step process for a conversation that takes a collaborative approach to defining common perspectives when people are in conflict. It is based on a rather clumsy acronym:

  1. D - determine what the other person seeks as an outcome
  2. R - reflect on the experiences, beliefs, and emotions
  3. E - explore areas of resistance and blind spots
  4. A - acknowledge agreements that emerge
  5. M - make sure there is a commitment afterward

A word of caution: following a step-by-step process may lead to a conversation that feels contrived, and can lead you to want to skip to shortcut steps in order to get to the end. If the other person senses you have a program, they will become distrustful.

And so, consider these steps to be milestones in the conversation (or a series of conversations). Be spontaneous and natural, being mindful of when a step has been completed, then make an elegant transition to the next phase of the conversation.

D = Determine the desired outcome

The difference between a conversation and a casual chat is that a conversation has a purpose, and seeks to achieve an outcome. If this goal is not in mind, the discussion is unfocused and often fails to achieve anything.

The author presents a dialog in which she is coaching a manager who seems dissatisfied into getting at the reasons why. It takes a bit of time because the manager has only a vague sense of the problem, then misidentifies the cause, then spins it to exonerate himself, then finally gets to the "real" problem, then inquires to bring out granular details to find the root cause.

Until the root cause is discovered, there can be no effective solution. Any course of action may be addressing an incidental or irrelevant symptom - and the behavior modeled in the conversation is quite typical: people don't know what they really want, and latch onto a goal that seems plausible without thinking it through. Hence, you have to investigate the goals and clarify the desired outcome.

Sometimes, this exploration is all it takes to solve a problem - particularly when a person is making a hasty decision. A good example is the person who wants to leave a job: they are generally overreacting to a problem that could be solved by other means, and the problem is entirely fixable - though sometimes it involves an unpleasant confrontation they are trying to avoid, or their pessimism prevents them from approaching the real problem. Quitting is easiest, but it is not best.

Coaching a person to describe their desired outcome may be as simple as asking that explicitly - "what do you want to achieve?" Focusing on achievement, rather than escape, changes their perspective. Follow-up questions might help to clarify - to dismiss irrational or unfocused thinking and get to the real problem and a reasonable solution. But the problem-solving process does not start until the complaining ends.

(EN: I sense the author's advice may cause people to skip the complaining process - but it's entirely helpful. There's often very useful information contained within a complaint, complaining helps purge emotions that cloud judgment, and their complaints communicate their perspective. Shortcutting the complaints is dismissive and counterproductive.)

R = Reflect on experiences, beliefs, and emotions

Arguments over the past are common, even though there is seldom any purpose to them. We may disagree, sometimes quite significantly, over the details of an event that occurred at which both parties were present because each has a different memory of what occurred.

No one has a perfect memory - and even those whose memories are remarkable are not perfectly accurate in all regards. We give attention to the things that seem to matter, ignore the things that don't, and even fabricated details that makes the memory seem complete and rational. And we live our lives as if these stories of the past were completely accurate, as they are the experiences that set our expectations of the present and of the future.

And so, it is important to take nothing for granted. Even when two people were in the same situation, they do not have the same perception of it nor the same memories of it. And a single person may change their story of the past over time.

And so, when you ask someone about a past event, realize that it is not accurate or consistent - but in general, the inconsistencies are in terms of the minor details and they tend to be consistent and accurate about the concepts beneath those details: what was important to them at the time, what emotions they experienced, the beliefs that influence their perception, and their motivation. It is most important to understand these things, rather than dwelling on the inconsequential details.

It is also important to resist the urge to try to get them to change their story to match your own. Your recollection is not more accurate and just as fictional as theirs - and attempting to get them to abandon their own perceptions and adopt yours is confrontational. The practice of "poking holes" in someone's account is very often replacing their misconceptions with your own.

The goal of the first stages of conversation is to understand the other person's perspective such as it is. The questions you ask should not challenge their point of view, but seek greater clarification to ensure that you are clear about their side of the story, gathering all facts before passing judgment.

She mentions the practice of summarizing and paraphrasing. Done well, they give the other person the impression that you are paying attention and listening nonjudgmentally to their account. However, it must be accurate to their version, not your own - to change the details in their account as you repeat it back to them will give them the sense that you are "twisting their words" and not really listening, and that you are indifferent to their interests.

Another powerful reflection tool is "mirroring," in which you repeat back to the person the key ideas and opinions they have stated. This can often be useful in getting them to consider their own words, ideas, and emotions - sometimes, they will recognize that they have said something inaccurate or irrational simply when they hear it repeated back to them.

And again, mirroring can be done poorly. If your tone is confrontational or judgmental, you are perceived in throwing things back in their face, often with your own spin on it. Your task is to represent their story as it was told, not as you wish to reinterpret it.

Reflecting is another step in the conversational process that has the potential to effect an immediate breakthrough, though it should not be expected to do so. Instead, approach reflection as the second step and accept that you are not even halfway to the end.

E = Explore blind spots and resistance

Going back to a previous point: a person's perception and recollection of events are shaped by their perception - which is by no means omniscient and is often adjusted to conform to their preconceptions, particularly in excluding inconsistent or unpleasant details and filling in the gaps with their assumptions. This makes it necessary to explore areas in which their account should be explored to ensure that it is complete (blind spots) and objective (resistance).

The objectives of this exploration are:

  1. To differentiate between fact and speculation in their account
  2. To consider the assumptions that may bias their account
  3. To identify the causes of emotional distortions
  4. To consider things from a broader perspective

Such an inquiry will naturally encounter resistance: their version of events is safe and comfortable for them, and the matters are settled in their mind. To question their interpretation is to question a comfortable reality, and to question assumptions in which they are confident.

There is no checklist of questions to ask, as the exploration is based on what they have told you - when you "sense" that they may be omitting or inserting details. You should proceed cautiously, recognizing that your "sense" may be wrong, as it is based on your own inaccurate perceptions.

You should also refrain from doing this until they have told the full story. To interrupt their account with these kinds of questions interferes with their ability to recall the story and gives them a sense that you disagree with their interpretation. They will become irritated and shut down.

She gives the example of an executive whose superior was leaving the firm. All he knew to be true was that the person was leaving - but what arose from this was a great cloud of uncertainty and doubt about his replacement: he feared the replacement would not be as good, expected the board would fill the position with a stooge, and felt helpless because he was not involved in the decision. All of these negative expectations prevented him from being proactive - and none of them were necessarily true - all he knew was that a person was leaving and would be replaced.

As an aside, there is also the question of "what's at stake for you?" People tend to invest a great deal of energy and emotion into things that do not affect them in a substantial way. In the example above, the executive would have to deal with whomever the board appointed and there would be little point in worrying and speculating.

It also helps to know more about the person, as some of the distortions are based on their characteristics: an optimist will have different interpretations than a pessimist and an extraverted person will have different interpretations than an introvert.

The practice of exploring is to help understand their thinking, and should neither seek to support or change what they think. In particular, avoid the use of rhetorical or loaded questions that seem to guide the person to adopt your own perspective - people detect that easily, and regard those who use this technique as manipulative.

A = Acknowledge the emerging awareness

In this step, you repeat back to them what they have said - particularly those elements that cause them to question their original perspective: the assumptions they are making and the emotional bias they may be applying to their account.

This step may seem redundant: you are merely reiterating what they have said and adding nothing to the conversation. However, it is important to emphasize these elements, as they are the very things that will cause them to reconsider their perspective so calling extra attention to them helps to focus their awareness and consider what they had previously avoided.

And again, this is not a process of reinterpreting things for them and interjecting your own perspective, but getting them to acknowledge the limitations that had influenced their original interpretation.

M = Make plans and/or commitments

Ultimately, the conversation must lead to action, or a change in behavior. It's as simple as asking, "Now that you consider (the discovered fact) what will you do?" The goal is to get them to formulate a new plan and commit to enacting it.

It's of particular importance to allow the other person to indicate what they will do rather than telling them what they ought to do, as this supports their autonomy. If you tell them what to do, they will have the immediate sense of being manipulated and will not feel committed to the plan.

Another important question to ask is "When will you do it?" This avoids procrastination and inertia - as knowing what ought to be done is entirely separate from making a commitment to do it.

A common mistake people make at this point is to recap the actions the person is supposed to take - or worse, documenting them and asking them to report back to you when it is done. This is extremely controlling and manipulative and will cause the person to feel that you are taking away their autonomy. You can offer to assist or follow up, but do not impose upon them.

And of course, you must recognize that a single conversation seldom effects a solution. Their "action" may be entirely self-contained - such as leaving this discussion with things to think about (but take no action upon) - and this is perfectly acceptable.