Family Tree Mediation





In “The What Happened Conversation, Part 1,” I suggested that our lack of experience skillfully navigating difficult conversations all too often leads us to conclude that we are damned if we do (pardon my French), and damned if we don’t.  For this reason we are prone to adopt a strategy of avoidance, choosing to let the perceived doom of a looming conflict come and get us, rather than to actively assist that doom along by seeking it out and opening it up for discussion.

But, as I discussed, the flaw in this approach is that our history of making a bad situation worse by rolling head-long into it does not mean that the problem lies in choosing to engage rather than to avoid.  What it means, actually, is that we have to engage the conflict in a skillful way.  Avoidance will eventually blow up in our face.  Yet picking up the ticking conflict bomb without preparation for disarming it, also means it will blow up in our face.  Fortunately, disarmament skills can be acquired.

Last time, we looked at the skill of holding the “And-Stance” posture when initiating a difficult conversation at the What Happened layer, the surface layer of three layers present in every difficult conversation, the surface where the facts of who, what, where, when, how, and why are discussed. 

The "And-Stance" is a skill that can help you avoid the truth assumption pitfallthe pitfall wherein you approach the conflict with an either/or mindset that assigns exclusive right to the truth to one of you or the other.  Since you can plainly see the errors of the other, that means you must be the one who's right, right?

The problem is that the other can also plainly see the error in your claims and thus is equally adamant that he or she must be right.  The two of you are simply not going to resolve a conflict from such entrenched positions.  Check out Part 1 to hear more about how the And-Stance enables you to avoid getting stuck in that trap.

Today, we are going to explore two other traps that are easy to fall into at the What Happened layer of every difficult conversation: The Intention Invention and The Blame Frame.  These “traps” are not my creation, they are described in the wonderful book, Difficult Conversations by the directors of the Harvard Negotiation Project.  As a result of thousands of hours of conversations with people coping with all kinds of conflicts in their lives, the authors were not only able to identify traps universal to every difficult conversation, they were also able to come up with skill sets and strategies for avoiding these pitfalls and achieving instead a successful, constructive result—not doom!  Let’s take a look:

The Intention Invention

The Intention Invention is a two-sided trap; it can lead both sides of a conflict into making mistakes that hinder a constructive resolution, which at heart, every party to a conflict would always like to achieve. 

The Intention Invention usually arises when someone has done something that has hurt us, and the initial error is that we assume the worst about that person.  We invent a malign intention behind their action even though we do not really know why they acted the way they did.  We assign a motive based first on the hurt we feel and second on things we have observed about them or their action. 

The problem is that our observations in such a situation are often really just critical judgments that we have been holding back, but which are now escaping through our open wounds.  As we are letting fly with these judgments, we rarely give ourselves pause to take an inventory of all the things we don’t know about the other’s actions.  And then another problem is that there’s something universal to human nature called the “confirmation bias.”  That is, we all focus disproportionately on details that confirm a judgment we already have and we pay less attention to details that undermine that judgment.  The operation of the confirmation bias can sometimes be most clearly seen in the fact that we tend to be more charitable in judging ourselves when others have been affected by similar conduct of our own.  Then, we have no trouble seeing all of the details surrounding our conduct that in fairness require a less severe judgment.

So here we are, completely ignoring the fact that bad intentions are actually pretty rare, saying essentially: “You hurt me; therefore, you meant to hurt me!” 

Let’s consider how this is going to be received by the accused: What are the chances the other really meant to hurt me?  Since it is likely the person did not want to hurt me, and probably did not mean to hurt me, my accusation now feels like an injustice.  Suddenly, I have gone from being the person complaining of an injustice to being the person committing the injustice.  Chances of a quick resolution to this conflict are suddenly looking slim.  What can I do better?

First, we can prepare ourselves for the conversation.  We do this by taking time to understand whether there are different components of the situation that need separating out, and if so what are they.  Indeed, in the case of the intention invention, we need to separately identify (a) the action that hurt us, (b) the impact of the action, and (c) our assumption about the other’s intention in taking that action.  When we have done this, we can hold our assumption about the other’s intentions aside, respecting it for what it is: just an assumption, based on a limited amount of information, likely tainted in some degree with judgment and bias.  Then we can go to the person who hurt us and share with them the impact of their actions on us, and we can ask them about their intentions.  When we do this, we can even admit that we have a hypothesis about their intentions so long as we acknowledge it is just a hypothesis and don’t assert it as a fact: “you meant to hurt me!” 

Even if we choose not to share our hypothesis, we should be prepared for defensiveness.  No one likes to find out they have hurt someone and it is human to react in ways that will enable them to feel less responsible for your hurt.  One way we can minimize defensiveness in the person we are confronting with our hurt is to provide a counterbalancing observation. 

For example, I might say: “Bob, I am always impressed by your sense of diplomacy.  That’s why I wanted to talk with you about the decision not to invite me to lunch or even let me know when our top client came to town.  As your partner, I was embarrassed to be so visibly left out of the loop. In the absence of any explanation, it also made me feel underappreciated, manipulated, and taken for granted by you.  I’m sure there were things going on I’m not aware of, but I’d like you to tell me what your intention was in not involving me?”

When I share my hurt and my suspicions in this way, Bob knows I see his good qualities, am keeping an open mind, and am seeking information that will create better understanding – all constructive qualities.

On Bob’s end, however, remember there is a flip-side trap: thinking our good intentions fix everything.  Bob can fall into this trap by responding, “Wait a second Hank, I was trying to protect you.  You know what a hot-head our client can be.  When he called to schedule our lunch, he was grumbling about his latest interaction with you.  I just wanted the chance to calm him down.”  Sounds fairly reasonable, right?  It’s really not.

The problem here is that Bob has only responded to the part of my message that made him feel bad, the part where I said, “he may have meant to hurt me.”  The return message Bob is sending me is that he did not listen to the most important part to me, the part that said, “I’M HURT!”  Bob has now added insult to injury by hurting me and then defending himself without acknowledging my hurt.  From the perspective of an outside observer, this may not seem like a big deal, but experience Bob’s message from the position of the one who has been hurt and you will see why Bob’s reply will get in the way of a constructive resolution of the conflict.

Instead, Bob should start by listening for feelings and acknowledging them.  After he has let me know he now understands all the ways his actions were painful to me, then he should reflect in a serious, open way about his intentions.  Life is too complex to have a single intention in almost any given moment.  It is helpful to take appropriate responsibility for intentions that may be painful to admit because taking that responsibility gives credence to the aspects of your intentions that were genuinely good and supportive. 

Thus, Bob might say, “Hank, I’m so glad you shared this with me.  I can see being excluded really made you question our relationship as business partners and embarrassed you in front of someone important to us both.  I’m really sorry.  You know, I have to admit, I think my intentions were a little mixed in that I do sort of think I handle this client better than you do, and I was thinking about the best way to manage his visit when I didn’t include you.  On the other hand, I also thought making an excuse for your absence would save you from having to respond to a lot of his grumbling I would be better able to smooth over.  I realize I should have talked with you about my concerns before taking it upon myself to make the decision alone.”

Now, I feel like Bob is listening to me.  He’s responded to every bit of what I said and started with what was most important, my feelings.  He’s also admitted to intentions that may have put my feelings at a lower priority than client management at the same time he has stood up for his good intention to save me from an unpleasant lunch.  Finally, through his reflection he has understood that the concerns motivating his actions could have been more affectively addressed by discussing them before hand with me.  In this way, we are now in a position of having a partnership relationship that has actually been strengthened by our conflict, not weakened by it.

The Blame Frame

Conflict is often about who is responsible for what went wrong.  The Blame Frame is the pitfall we encounter when we look backward at what went wrong and seek a quick way of relieving ourselves from responsibility.  This strategy applies three questions: (1) Who is to blame? (2) What standard should be applied to the conduct of the person to blame? and (3) What will be the consequence they suffer for being to blame?

The Blame Frame comes with many serious limitations.  First of all, when the above three questions are the focus of the discussion, no one is likely to provide any information that might lead to blame being placed on them.  Therefore, knowledge of what is going on remains limited and incomplete.  The opportunity to learn from what happened is undermined.  Second, blame overly simplifies every situation by artificially isolating one part of a system from the rest and holding it accountable for the system’s dysfunction.  Third, because blame involves a gross simplification of the situation, it also is unfair to the one being blamed.  This unfairness justifies and therefore entrenches the defensiveness of the one being blamed even though such defensiveness is not constructive.

The author’s of Difficult Conversations advocate setting aside the Blame Frame and using what they call the Contribution System instead.  That is, in every situation where something has gone wrong, almost every participant in the system has made some contribution that has allowed the problem to occur, even if only by failing to notice or call attention to details that maintain the system’s proper function.  At the same time, when everyone has contributed to the problem, no one is solely to blame.  This means that people can own up to what they should have done differently without fear of being made the scapegoat.  Central to the contribution system, then, is a forward looking attitude that wants to learn how to improve the system in order to avoid future occurrence of the problem at issue.  When the focus is on improving the system, not on imposing consequences, all participants are freed to share information honestly and work together in a creative fashion that benefits the whole.

To apply the Contribution System, first take time to evaluate whether you tend to take on responsibility for problems that really is not yours, or do you tend to shift responsibility for your own errors on others?  Keep in mind it is very hard to be a perfect person who always takes just the right amount of responsibility.  Knowing which way you lean, however, is indispensible in helping you get closer to this goal.  Next, when you open up a difficult conversation about something that has gone wrong, introduce the idea of contribution as opposed to blame, explain that you want to create a list of all the contributions to the problem for the sake of engineering a better system in the future, and start by sharing what contributions you think you made to what went wrong.  People tend not to want to share their contributions first because they fear the conversation will get stuck on their mistakes.  If you feel this is happening to you, the solution is just to share your observation: “I’m happy to have us develop a strategy for improving the way I do things, but I just want to note that I’m pretty sure there are a number of other contributions to the problem we have and it feels like we’re getting fixated only on what I did.”  If people are still unwilling to step forward and name their contributions, help them by sharing your observations about how their conduct may have contributed to the problem.  Then, clarify what you would have them do differently. 

The hard part of the Contribution System is that it is possible to half-heartedly go through the steps while still looking backward seeking blame, without really creating a forward-looking positive environment for open discussion.  If you can foster the spirit of a team of computer programmers collaborating on a difficult innovation, you will always be focused on improving the system, understanding the bugs in it, thinking outside the box for new ways to work together that will take you to the next level.  This does not mean that appropriate consequences cannot be part of the discussion, but only that consequences for mistakes are measured in terms of what will help achieve future goals, not provide cover for past mistakes.

Practicing the steps applying the Contribution System, as well as the steps for discussing the intentions behind hurtful acts, really builds confidence that there are effective ways to keep a difficult conversation constructive.  Over time as your confidence in navigating these different pitfalls grows, you will begin to trust that engaging in the difficult conversation in a skillful way up front is infinitely more desirable than avoiding it until the conflict suddenly erupts uncontrolled. 

Here at Family Tree Mediation, one of the services I offer is communication and personal development coaching.  If you are looking for help preparing for a difficult conversation, wanting to improve your communication skills generally, or seeking a support vehicle for clarifying and pursuing your goals for your ongoing evolution, I invite you to give me a call to schedule a coaching session at (650) 762-8733.

Image/Photo by Andrew Dunn under a Creative Commons Licensen

Oh, and I can't recommend highly enough this terrific book!