The disagreement dissolver: a check-list for stamping out misunderstanding at work

Updated 13:30 17th January with another checklist!

So many conversations leave leave people with more misunderstanding than they started. Workplaces are rife with suspicion about hidden agendas, lack of trust, and brewing resentments because the quality of discussion is so poor that we read (and often mis-read) between the lines to figure out what is really happening.

discussing the undiscussableI’ve recently been reading around the work of communication guru Chris Argyris and came across a brilliant book, Discussing the undiscussable by William R. Noonan. In it, Noonan discusses one of Argyris’ key ideas, the Ladder of Inference. Essentially it’s a way of analysing the way you’ve reached a conclusion and helping to ‘re-trace your steps’ so that you can check out where you might be creating a misunderstanding at the root of a disagreement. I’ve already found it so incredibly useful and exciting that I wanted to blog. It won’t solve every disagreement but I think it’s a really helpful way to break down some of the defensiveness and resentment and reframe the discussion.

The Ladder of Inference

Argyris suggests we consider our reasoning as a 3-part process.

  1. We select our facts or data
  • We filter the things that we see, hear, or remember and select or highly-weight useful items (generally ones that confirm existing thinking or assumptions). This process is partly conscious (e.g. filtering out or minimising items that we deem boring/ridiculous/irrelevant, or where we believe the source is unreliable/biased/foolish/annoying)  or unconscious (we’ll notice words or pictures of people/things we have a stronger emotion about – e.g fear/excitement).
  • We bring a particular lens to the filtering process – e.g. we may be typically more sensitive to positive emotions, or perhaps we’re more cynical and look for the worst.
  • Our emotions us can restrict our ability to ‘cast the net wide’ – we ‘amp up’ some facts and ‘drown out’ others while our nerves are jangling. [See more in this blog about emotional blindness]
  • We aren’t aware of what we aren’t aware of – we don’t know what data are out there, what events have occurred, that we aren’t aware of. We can only begin to reason from the small subset of information we read, hear, or see – missing out enormous amounts that others have read, heard or seen.

2. We interpret the facts

  • We ascribe our own meaning to items of evidence based on our mood, our previous experience, culture (organisational, personal, national, etc) and understanding. It is inevitable that elements of nuance (or even major aspects) or meaning that were intended by the author/speaker are missed, and that we superimpose feelings and ideas that were also not intended.
  • Words have associations to us that they may not have to others – each word or idea is tainted with different positives and negatives to us than it is to another person.

3. We draw conclusions

  • We summarise our filtered, re-interpreted data and select a concluding thought
  • We unconsciously connect an emotion to it through our own interpretation – again based on where it came from, our current situation, our past, our mood, our feelings about the other person or people involved.
  • We focus on the conclusion and tend to allow the data and interpretation process to fade from memory.

We’re prone to reach conclusions that conform to our existing views, filtering and interpreting the data to help us achieve this. Challenging views which may lead to us feeling embarrassed or angry tend to result in us drawing a conclusion that the other person is hostile, unreliable, untrustworthy, etc.

On the other hand, if we like someone then we cast even unreasonable data in a more favourable light, reaching less negative conclusions. We may choose to minimise or water-down any conclusion, and pussy-foot around its presentation to avoid presenting data that we believe could harm our relationship. [See more about communication issues and techniques here]

Argyris noted that, once we reach a conclusion, we tend to cling to it. However, most people reach conclusions while missing a significant number of other views, interpretations and facts.

The check-list

To dramatically reduce miscommunication, Argyris and Noonan suggest that we carefully check our assumptions and those of others, systematically checking facts, observations and inferences.

Key ideas:

  • Interrupt the action:
    As soon as you realise that you’re engaged in debate that is mainly abstract conclusions and misunderstandings, interrupt your thought pattern and emotional response to take a step back.
  • Engage your curiosity:
    Rather than focusing on ‘being right’ and trying to persuade, focus on trying to fully understand the other person or people’s position. What may be obvious to one of you may not be obvious to the others.
  • Shine a light on your differences:
    Publicly note that you’ve spotted a misunderstanding and different point of view. Tentatively paraphrase what you’ve understood of the other position(s) – both final conclusions and observations – inviting clarifications and additions to clear up what you’ve missed.
  • Pursue a line of enquiry
    Importantly, these authors state that you must begin with a brutally honest reflection on your own conclusions or opinions, interrupting any impulsive or emotional reaction to check your facts. This needs to happen before you approach someone else to challenge their own beliefs or conclusions. You can then follow a respectful enquiry approach with the other person, as follows.
  1. What facts or observations have you and I selected to make our cases?
  2. Is there anything that I’ve deliberately chosen to ignore, reject or minimise? Is it worth re-checking its value? What about the other person?
  3. What might we have missed? Is there something that one person has observed that the other is unaware of? How might we find out?
  4. Are these facts or observations truly objective or have we layered on our own interpretations about meaning? What would they look like in a purely objective way with no interpretation?
  5. Is it possible to reasonably come to a different conclusion?
  6. What extra information will we need to seek in order to check our conclusions?

Use this checklist to, as Argyris and Noonan would put it, “climb down your ladder of inference” to check for misunderstanding. This may be needed quite rapidly, in a meeting or conversation. Social media arguments may seem fast-paced but their brevity makes them particularly prone to a self-reinforcing cycle of misunderstanding on both sides. Emails can very often appear colder and more aggressive than the sender intended – hence it is important to check your reading of what is ‘between the lines’ and the intended tone.

The same techniques can be used both to check your understanding of someone else’s assertions or opinions. Work back carefully, asking questions to understand what led the other person to a conclusion, and the underlying observations or facts. This can help gain an insight into the person’s real meaning, or uncover a relatively easy-to-resolve misunderstanding at the heart of a disagreement.

You can also use this approach to present your own ideas and conclusions more effectively. By carefully layering up from selected data, adding your interpretations then presenting your idea, you have time to check for understanding and missing data/facts along the way and present a cogent case with less chance of misinterpretation and more chance to learn and improve the conclusions along the way. You also present ideas in an open way, able to be both clear and authoritative while also showing a trust-inducing openness and ability to listen.

This is really just the tip of the iceberg of Argyris and Noonan’s work and I’ll try and blog more of the approaches in future.

What are your reactions to this? Have you used these techniques? Am I missing other ideas or approaches that would help? Is there a flaw in this that I haven’t spotted? Please do help me explore this.


The art of being level-headed, not emotionally blinded

Imagine it: your face flushes red, your shoulders tense, your skin prickles and your stomach sinks. Stress, anxiety, anger – it’s your body’s fight or flight response.

When we’re young these emotions are all-consuming and lead to regular emotional breakdown. As we get older, we gain an increasing ability to separate ourselves from the emotion – to see that it is temporary, to slightly detach from it and explore it with some curiosity.

Both as a teacher and an organisation leader, this ability has been completely critical. When I’ve allowed emotions to go unchecked then I’ve compromised my abilities to control classes and dealt badly with meetings. Stress reactions spiral out of control, they are exhausting and destructive.

When we are stressed a number of effects occur:

  • We zoom in on the stress – our attention is drawn closely to the stimulus that is causing us anxiety or anger. This might be the person who is being threatening or the particular thought going around our head that is worrying us. Other things around us and other thoughts recede into the background. We lose sight of the bigger picture, losing perspective and becoming, quite literally, narrow minded. Conversely, but also harmfully, we are also much more easily distracted, finding it harder to filter stimuli and thoughts that are irrelevant to our goal. This is a particular problem if the source of stress is not the thing we’re supposed to be focusing on – e.g. trying to engage in a calm, thoughtful conversation after an emotionally stressful event.
  • We are more likely to be aggressive (the fight response) and competitive or alternative we may feel compelled to withdraw – physically or emotionally. We are less likely to think things through calmly and logically. Our decision-making is more haphazard and more likely to be sub-optimal.
  • Due to paying attention much more selectively, we are likely to form narrower memories from the event which focus on the emotional content and the stressful stimulus – we will remember different things differently to someone who was calm. We are much less effective at tasks that require integrating different inputs or ideas – processes and tasks requiring divided attention or focus is impaired. More generally, our working memory is impaired. Not only makes this harder to think about the current situation, this also impairs retrieval of past events
  • Our risk-taking behaviour is modified. On average, we all tend to be more keen to pursue reward with less avoidance of possible negative outcomes. However, stress also amplifies gender differences. On average, men’s risk-taking is ramped up much more strongly than women’s.
  • We are less likely to take a team perspective in groups, leading to lower performance as a team more generally.

All of this is pretty disastrous if you are trying to remain calm in the face of a class that needs calm authority, or a stressful meeting which requires strategic decision-making and careful person-management.

So, what’s to be done? I personally use a few key principles. Apologies if they sound a little fluffy or odd, but they seem to work for me!

  1. Practice noticing your own emotions. Get used to spotting the first flush of adrenaline and making a note that you are getting an emotional reaction. Check your mental state and the tension in your muscles at regular intervals to see how tense or stressed you are feeling. This is the vital first step in dealing with the emotion and detaching yourself from it.
  2. Allow the emotion to subside and pass. Take a moment to pause. Drop your shoulders. Take a deep breath. Slow your rate of speaking.
  3. Also notice the emotional state of others. Spot when they go red, look for tension in their faces, particularly around the eyes. Remember that it is temporary. Recognise that it may cause an empathy reaction in you and look for this.
  4. Most importantly, zoom out and see this is as a small and possibly even helpful emotional blip in a successful extended process. Emotion can lead to opening up, and to learning. Think of the big picture and the long game. Use the words curiosity and design to trigger calmer, more logical thoughts, more detached, giving yourself space to see wider solutions.

Outside of the stressful episodes you need to try and encourage yourself to be better at coping. Practice noticing your emotional state regularly. Ensure you get enough sleep. Even one late night can have knock on effects for the rest of the week. Sleep deprivation makes you emotionally less resilient, less able to detach, more liable to stress. Give yourself space to unwind and relax. I personally find mindfulness techniques help me both with the noticing of my emotional state as well as helping to put aside nagging or stressful thoughts, though I don’t have the patience to practice at all regularly.

What works for you? Am I missing some techniques or ideas? I’m keen to learn from you, please do leave a comment.

9 ways for leaders to be better at communication

Image by Matt Weibo from under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0

Poor communication sucks the life out of organisations. Many teams are full of uncomfortable issues, awkward misunderstandings and confusing meetings where everyone leaves with a different idea of what is going on. This leads to frustration, reduced trust, reduced respect and reduced sense of each other’s competency. It leads to suspicion about whether real intentions match stated intentions and it generated lots of unnecessary stress.

I’ve enjoyed reading through some great blogs and books on leadership and communication. In the spirit of sharing and to help my own learning, I’d like to suggest an initial 9 ideas for leaders that you can use to transform communication. Do you agree or disagree with these? Can you improve on them? Please do comment and share.  I’d love to hear your ideas, challenges and reflections. I’ve included links to some of my reading at the bottom of this blog.

1. Approach with a spirit of respect, curiosity and enquiry
Your mental state at the start of the conversation is vital. Note and acknowledge your own emotional state while focusing on your curiosity about what the final solution might look like. Be prepared to learn something about (and potentially to change) the assumptions you’re bringing, and to learn more about the other person and their context. Avoid bringing a laundry list of ideas to impose. Imagine a blank space in which you will create a way forward, where the other person will also bring some building blocks and some ideas.

2. Don’t fluff, don’t pussy-foot, don’t ease-in
Good leaders build and maintain trusting relationships, but this doesn’t stop them getting to the heart of an issue. Fear of causing stress can make us spontaneously water down or ‘fluff’ the discussion of challenging facts, or spend far too long ‘easing in’ or ‘pussy-footing around’ a challenging conversation so that the point gets lost. Even though the intention was to maintain the relationship the other person will probably realise you’re not saying what you really think and this leads to suspicion and lack of trust and, ultimately, does more harm than good. Prioritising short-term emotional comfort over long-term goals and genuine, trusting relationships is damaging, and can lead to watering down expectations/challenge which, ultimately, harms everyone in the organisation. However, the flip side is that systematically creating insecurity and reducing trust will also lead to organisation breakdown! Great conversations aim to maintain and build relationships while addressing challenges and moving things forwards.

3. Check your assumptions, bring your view as just one possibility
The relationship with the other person is very important too! Respect and understanding can be built together when you check your assumptions about the situation. Simply starting by saying “I’ve made some assumptions here and I would like to check them with you” invites the other person to contribute and shows you are open to listening. Maintain your alertness to your assumptions throughout the conversation and try and discuss them openly.

4. Restate and summarise
Every element of a conversation is being interpreted and heard differently by each party. We bring our own feelings and understanding and we’re constantly reinterpreting what we hear to fit our own mental models of the world. To avoid the worst of this, use phrases such as ‘I’d like to pause and double check I’ve understood what you mean’ or ‘Can I summarise what you’ve said as’. Follow this with a question like ‘Have I captured the key points you were making or is there anything I’ve missed or misrepresented?’ Invite the other person to summarise too, e.g. ‘I don’t know how clear I’m being – please could you play back what I’ve just said to make sure we’re on the same page and help me ensure I’m not being confusing?’

5. Be alert to your emotional cues
Every time you get a little burst of adrenaline you feel it in your stomach, you may feel yourself going red, and you may feel your muscles tense. This typically happens when you get an emotional ‘fight or flight’ reaction within the conversation. Use these as clues to unspoken assumptions or issues you’re bringing to the table. When you notice this reaction then you also need to work twice as hard to check assumptions, listen openly and check for understanding as the adrenaline will be working against your ability to think logically and openly. This commonly happens when the other person says something that threatens our own feelings of competency, our safety or our social standing. If necessary, pause the conversation. ‘I had an emotional reaction to that last question/idea which makes me realise that I am worried about X’ or ‘I’ve realised I got a bit tense, can we resume [in a few minutes]/[later today] so that I can make sure I’m listening openly?’ or ‘When you said that it made me feel tense – I’m reflecting on why and I think I’m worried that…’

6. Check their assumptions too
Not only are you bringing assumptions to the conversation, the other person is too. Questions that the other person asks may not always be the ones that are addressing the real issue, only tangential issues. They may also be forming assumptions behind what you’re saying that may not be true. This is a real test of your leadership qualities as some of their assumptions may be questioning your competency or character – be very careful aware of your emotional reactions and be open to exploring and learning about yourself. Use questions like ‘so that I can answer your question better, could you explain why you’re asking it?’ and ‘do you think there’s an important or difficult issue here that we’re not talking about? I’m really open to hearing your thinking even if it’s critical of me’. By showing you listen and making yourself a little vulnerable you can learn a lot and build trust. It can also raise your standing as a genuinely respected leader rather than having to rely on ‘hard’ power and risk reducing trust.

7. Make space – don’t fill all the conversations space, ask questions and wait
When you’re anxious or stressed you tend to talk more and listen less. As a leader you have more ‘presence’ and ‘weight’ in the conversation than you often realise. Leave silences at the end of the other person’s contributions. This allows you to be more thoughtful, and allows the other person to add other points they may have forgotten. Follow questions with longer pauses than normal. Imagine that each question creates a space between the two of you – don’t shut down this space by pushing your own answers in. Open body language, e.g. relaxed stance and palms up, can help create this conversational space. Sometimes you can explicitly acknowledge the space – e.g. ‘in this space here between us we’re going to create the solution to this – what does it look like?’

8. Be careful with suggestions, label their ‘power’
Your inherent power as a leader can overwhelm the other person’s ideas and suggestions. Every time you say ‘what about ….’ then it can come across as ‘I want us to do this and I will be annoyed if I don’t get my way’. You need to preface and caveat every suggestion with clarity about whether it is a firm idea that should be accepted, or merely a contribution that can be ignored or changed. Use phrase such as ‘This is just a tentative suggestion to build on – feel free to reject it’. Be extremely sparing about your own contributions. Ideally you want to seed the conversation with sufficient space and challenge that colleagues can start generating their own solutions.

9. Integrity builds trust
Make sure your deeds match your words. If you say you are open to listening, you need to make sure you don’t punish the other person for speaking, suggesting or criticising. If you say you are open to their contributions and ideas, you need to follow through and not end up systematically rejecting them all. If you say you are making the other person responsible for the next step, recognise that stepping in or taking back control will undermine both them and you. If you say you will follow up with an action, failing to do so makes you look untrustworthy.

No amount of great dialogue can overcome the damage done by lack of integrity – indeed, failure to follow through or match deeds to your words makes it orders of magnitude harder to communicate effectively later. Where trust is low, aim for smaller, quicker wins to show that you will follow through.

These are all really tough, and it’s through making (many) mistakes with pretty much all of the above points that I’ve been learning to develop my own leadership. I’m going to try and blog more frequently and share some of the interesting ideas I’ve been reading. In my next blog I want to explore how to raise the level of challenge and expectation while improving buy-in and avoiding becoming top-down.

Pages 171-199 of the Best Evidence Synthesis: School Leadership and Student Outcomes: Identifying What Works and Why. Viviane Robinson, Margie Hohepa, and Claire Lloyd, The University of Auckland

Open-to-learning conversations – a presentation by Viviane Robinson

Chris Argyris – Teaching Smart People How To Learn, Harvard Business Review

PS In a spectacular mathematics teacher fail, my original post was called “8 ways…” when in fact there are 9. Oops!