NLP Gems – [3.1] The meaning of your communication is the response you get.

A few days ago I had the learning experience of spending time with someone who already knew it all and in the course of the conversation constantly reminded me how I seemed to regularly misunderstand much of what he was telling me. (er. saying).

Learning experience you may ask? Yes it was. Here was a person who had been tasked with familiarising himself with the technology and infrastructure of a new working environment. (an environment he also knew I was intimately familiar with) This person had then gone away and consulted with a few people who had a tertiary involvement in the system (in order to familiarise himself with technology and the facts. A task I subsequently discovered he did not care much for). Armed with these facts, he proceeded to inform me in great detail exactly what was wrong, what needed fixing and how things should be changed. Every time I asked for clarification on what he termed “facts” and issues and how he had come by the information I was told that I misunderstood what he had said because I was asking the questions aggressively.

An opportunity to learn oh yesssss!

It soon dawned on me that the act of asking questions to induce a dialog was not working very well. My attempt at dialog was undermining an existing discussion taking place – his. Any attempt by me at asking questions to build a dialog was failing because this person already “had the facts” and by now already “knew it all”. Any questions I asked seemed to anger him and anything I tried to explain was tossed back with a “so you want me to just accept the way things are.”  I realised I was not “misunderstanding” things, I had just not understood period.  I was failing to engage and a little voice in my head told me to just sit back, and listen and learn from this.  Perhaps my mind was closed because I knew the system, and the politics and the history?  I really don’t know, perhaps I was listening to a nonsense discussion  (I love the way it is pronounced by the British, as two separate words – non sense) given by someone who treated discussions as a delivery mechanism for a personal missive, treating otions, interpretations, attributions, generalizations and other people’s opinions as things, rather than presuppositions. I hate to admit this but eventaully I gave up. I was exhausted from trying to figure a way to understand the guy. I just sat back and thought of Peter Senge and his interpretation of discussion vs. dialog.

In the Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge points out that in most businesses, discussion take place instead of dialog. Discussion takes place when people state their views, position or observations and then provide reasons to defend (justify?) their beliefs. Dialog takes place when people state their views, position or observations and then give their reasons, and invite exploration and appraisal of their reasons and presuppositions. A position is not supposed to be presented purely for the purpose of defending it. A view is presented “tentatively” – not as unassailable fact – with the keenness to acknowledge that others may just be able to improve the position, or else to illustrate why it is altogether unsustainable. Most of us will probably agree that “two heads are better than one” however when it comes to discussion, many people behave as though “my head is better than all of yours combined!”

Senge shares a cool way to develop your handling of  presuppositions in conversations allowing you to dig deeply into your mental models. It works like this.

Fold  a sheet of paper or divide it into two columns.
Now, think back and recall a recent conversation that did not go well. In the right column [R] write down exactly what you said and below that write down what the other party said, keeping everything separated and in order.

In the [L] column directly alongside your comments, write what you were thinking when what was said was said.

Then step through what is written in your [L] left hand column.

Ask yourself these questions:

1 – What may have happened if I said what was in [L]?
2 – Why didn’t I say [L]?
3 – What is [L] based on in my beliefs about this person?
4 – What was my goal in the conversation?

One key to really communicating is to find ways to bring out what is in  [L] without creating defensiveness in the other party. This is fundamental to building deep trust between two people.

Try to notice what is being inferred in [L] with the following thought in mind
1) realize you are making inferences and that they are not the same as factual data
2) ensure you are communicating your inferences to others for the purpose of mutual examination of validity

A spirit of curiosity and humility works here – it’s just you doing the exercise anyway, no one needs to know 🙂


%d bloggers like this: