Category Archives: Difficult Conversations

Rules reduce learning

A New Zealand School ditches the safety rules for its playground and gets some pretty amazing results. The Principal comments:

The kids were motivated, busy and engaged. In my experience, the time children get into trouble is when they are not busy, motivated and engaged. It’s during that time they bully other kids, graffiti or wreck things around the school.

I wouldn’t conclude that we should have no rules – but it’s a salutary warning of their unintended, often adverse, consequences. It’s particularly interesting to see this experiment taking place in an educational environment. So much training wants to teach us the rules for doing things, but in doing so removes the adventure of learning that often “teaches” us much better.

Reminds me of the Dutch traffic experiments of Hans Monderman. Also this about a Stephen Adshead post:

Max Weber argued many years ago that the logic of bureaucracy is the tendency to privilege procedural rationality (the rationality of rules) over substantive rationality (the rationality of ends). There is a temptation – in the face of uncertainty and risk everywhere – to increase the rules and the systems; to shape human behaviour by sheer bloody effort of will.

This influences my approach to difficult conversations: rather than teaching dubious general rules for how to have them, I’m much more interested in creating lots of experimentation so people can discover for themselves what works.

Hat tip: Viv’s tweet

Complexity in conversations

Anne Marie McEwan reflects on the complexity of relationships in her post, Complexify Yourself:

I think that complexity takes on another dimension when people interact. We are not pre-determined entities or objects – we ourselves are complex. We change and develop. How we feel and act on a particular day emerges from many things that can affect us.

We’re born with capabilities and personalities but these aren’t fixed. We interact with our environments and are changed by them. We learn and adapt. I can only speak for myself but I behave differently according to who I am with, how well I know someone and what the context is?—?formal, informal, familiar, new and perhaps unsettling?

Consider if you and I were working together. I do or say something and this might influence what you do or say. Your response to me similarly has the potential to influence what I do or say. And so it continues. What emerges from our interactions is fraught with all sorts of tensions and possibilities. High divorce rates in many countries suggest how difficult it is for two people to continue to see eye-to-eye.

Yep. I think we easily lose sight of the complexity in even the simplest conversation. When working on difficult conversations, I’ll often play out 10, 20 or more different ways to give a one line response to a provocation. Quite small things have significant impact on how people react to what is said. (See this post for more on this.)

I think we easily lose sight of the richness within even the most mundane-seeming conversation. I have a hunch that as a result we don’t realise how much influence we have, moment-to-moment in our relationships.

Hat tip: Harold Jarche

Difficult conversations, part 3

This is the third episode in my series of short videos about having difficult conversations. (Part One Part Two)

I talk about the Marshmallow Challenge  and the benefits of rapid prototyping in making physical things. I then suggest that we can use a similar approach to rapidly prototype behaviour. Instead of getting stuck in analysis-paralysis, or applying a set of rules it can be better to rapidly iterate alternative ways of responding to difficult people, and make discoveries in the process.

Everyone will experience a difficult conversation in a different way, so they need to discover approaches that work by experimentation, rather than following a standardised solution.

Feedback welcome!

Difficult conversations, part 2

This is the second of my series of short videos about difficult conversations. (Part one here)

In this one I talk about the importance of respecting that the difficult conversations are difficult. Often advice or simple rules fail to acknowledge this: offering apparently simple solutions actually increases the stress. Instead, I take the view that stuck places are interesting. As well as frustration, there’s great creative potential in situations where we feel stuck: if we can approach them with some playfulness and open-mindedness, some really interesting discoveries could be made.

I also touch on how tricky conversations are largely about physical performance, and perhaps we should not treat them as mainly an intellectual exercise.

More to follow…

Difficult conversations workshop, Cambridge, Feb 6th

shutterstock_145766399My friend Antony Quinn and I are running our Difficult Conversations workshop again in Cambridge. We really enjoyed the one we did in December so we are rinsing-and-repeating.

It’s on Thursday February 6th from 10am to 1pm.

Full details & booking info are here

Here’s a bit of the blurb we wrote for the event it would be great to see you there.

Lots of courses are run on “dealing with difficult people” for this reason. These tend to be quite long on analysis and full of very intelligent sounding principles and frameworks. The trouble is that these courses idealise how we should hold our conversations. We think this can be disempowering… few of us can really live up to these ideals and the effort to do so can either leave us feeling we have failed, or leave us in a space of restrained politeness where we’re just repressing our more animal selves, albeit more skilfully than before.

We think the clue is in the title. Difficult conversations are difficult. We don’t help ourselves by attempting to make them easy by mental effort… in fact that often just makes the psychological rut deeper.

Difficult conversations

In coaching I find a lot of my work comes down to helping people find ways to deal with difficult conversations.  In meetings, whatever brilliant process you use, people’s willingness to talk about the tricky stuff is what really makes a difference to the success.

So I’m putting together a few short videos talking about difficult conversations, why they’re difficult and what we can do about it.  Although most of us put a fair bit of effort into avoiding them, if we can have them, the potential rewards are pretty high.

This is the first, it’s just an introduction. More to follow…