Conventional wisdom holds that communication is good and that discussion of issues on which we have a common interest – even if our opinions differ – is a good thing. My experience is that such discussions can be very constructive, but they can also be destructive depending on a number of different factors which, for the most part, are under the control of the people involved. Currently national debate on the issues of the day seems to growing more destructive than constructive which is bothersome to most of us. The purpose of this short dissertation is to set out the criteria that I believe help to create an environment for productive discussion. This is based on 50 years experience dealing with and participating in group discussions of various types involving people of various backgrounds and education levels in the same or different organizations in various roles including management, leadership, and facilitation roles in not-for-profit, for profit, and government or quasi-government organizations.
Let me say at the outset that I have certain beliefs that no doubt shape my opinions on this subject and I would be in violation of one of my own rules if I did not get those on the table up front.
- I believe that we learn the most when we work with people who have different background and experiences than we do. We have the least to learn from people who agree with our views, but our comfort level tends to run much higher with these folks than with people that we have less in common with.
- I am a believer in win-win solutions as being desirable and are one measure of whether discussions on solutions to common problems have been constructive.
- I believe in Stephen Covey’s concept of “the third alternative”. That is that people come to the discussion table with different ideas of what the solution should be, but if we can have a constructive open discussion we will likely end up with a solution alternative that is different and better than either of us started with.
- I also believe – because I have experienced this on more than one occasion – that even if in the end we don’t agree, I will have a much better understanding of the issues and I will likely have modified my position in some way from the where I originally started.
- Constructive discussion, even where the result is an agreement to disagree, will strengthen the personal relationship and increase mutual respect.
Destructive discussion on the other hand:
- Destroys or weakens relationships.
- Drives people toward a hardened defense of their original positions.
- Makes it more difficult to work together toward any productive end.
- In sum, it polarizes people and relationships.
No discussion will likely be better than a destructive discussion. So what are my criteria?
- Common Goals and recognition of mutual dependence: During the 2000 presidential campaign, I was encouraged that the two candidates not only seemed to have the same goals in mind, but also the same priorities. Then I listened to the major network news people who kept telling me that the country was “deeply divided”. My experience is that if people want the same things as the end result, then there is every possibility that we can find a mutually acceptable alternative to get that to happen. The division between the two candidates was not what we wanted but how best to get there. How differences should be much easier than what differences. My thought was the country was obviously evenly divided between the “how alternatives”, but those aren’t necessarily deep divisions unless we find a way to make them into that. But the news media likes controversy because it draws viewers and sells papers, and elections are win-lose exercises; so between the candidates and the media, we managed to become deeply divided. But if people recognize that we’re all in this together and would all like to see the same end result, there is a solid basis for constructive discussion and productive resolution of differences. When we can’t reach agreement on common goals, we may be in more serious trouble and their may be a “deep division”. If we have goals in common, and if people believe that that is the case, then a chance to find mutually acceptable alternatives. But neither the media or the politicians – none, or very few of them – are our friends on this one.
- Common definition of the Problem(s): Somewhere back in my engineering days I learned the old saying that a problem well-defined is a problem half (or more) solved. Yet for whatever reason, people don’t seem to like to do that. I guess it’s much more fun to talk about solutions. Dreaming up solutions seems more creative and seemingly requires less work. (The less work may only be true if one is not too worried about determining feasibility.) But folks in my experience will always have trouble agreeing on a solution if they don’t have the same view of the problem. The difficulty with today’s problems is that they are large, complex and difficult. All the easy problems have been solved. The ones we have left are not simple and they probably won’t yield to simple, easy, or quick solutions. Another difficulty with today’s problems is that there are often several interdependent facets to them and/or several layers. The pain frequently follows the symptoms, and may not indicate very directly the underlying problem. It may take some research work to determine what the underlying problems are, but if we only treat the symptoms, we aren’t likely to have a long-term acceptable fix and in the meantime the underlying problem may get worse. It also may take longer to treat the underlying problem and we may have to suffer more pain while we do it, but it may be the only way to really have effective change. We also need to be willing to recognize that we may not be able to do everything at once. There may be resource limitations or there may be prerequisites in terms of applying solutions. In the case of resource limitations, we need to be able to agree on priorities. In the case of prerequisites, it’s necessary to determine interdependencies between problems as well as identifying “root causes”.
- A willingness to admit that I don’t have all the knowledge or all the answers that might be desirable: We all have gaps in knowledge, even in areas where we have a lot of training and experience. In some of today’s issues, such as medical care, there is probably not anyone who knows enough individually to understand the whole of the medical care environment alone. Frequently those that do have in-depth knowledge of specific parts also have a vested interest, so we decide not to trust them. But that is generally not wise unless they have done something specific to earn our mistrust. Productive discussions are based on trust as well as knowledge. If we’re in a win-win mode where each person is comfortable that their concerns will be heard, there is less reason not to trust. Plus, let’s face it, we all have some vested interest in the outcomes to mutual problems. To understand both the problems and the ramifications of possible solutions, we need people with different backgrounds, experiences, and specific situations. We also need to recognize that there will never be enough information to project the results of future courses of action with absolute certainty. Problem definition is often a fact-finding exercise, but a complete understanding of the problem usually requires some logical model of how those facts inter-relate. In the case of analyzing possible solution results, there are no facts – only projections based on some logical construct. These projections are uncertain at best. Some things are not knowable with certainty. It’s good to know what we know, but maybe more important to know what we don’t know or can’t know.
- Recognition that there is probably more than one feasible solution alternative: It should never be my way or the highway. There’s always, as my Father used to tell me, “more than one way to skin a cat”. Enough said.
- Recognition that there are no perfect solutions – all have undesirable side effects and the Law of Unintended Consequences is still in full force and effect: t throw out the good stuff as well. doing everything can create more problems than it solves. ve implemented a lot of changes in people organizations, and there has always been the unexpected. Not always bad, but always there. The more productive discussion and analysis of an idea that can be had before implementation, the fewer surprises there will likely be, but there will always be some. Nobody and no idea is perfect.
- Some General Rules or a code of conduct on how we treat each other: I’ve worked with a number of teams from different organizations and/or different parts of the same organization on projects where each had different responsibilities and different vested interests. They knew that they were going to have to make decisions on how to do stuff that would affect them all. One of the most effective thing that these teams have done at the outset of the project is to agree on something called a “Code of Team Behavior”. They weren’t all the same. Each team was free to develop its own. Each code agreed to and signed off on by all the team members. They weren’t all the same, but they had some common elements. They included things like the following:
- Focus the discussion on the work content (or the issues) and not people or personalities – i.e. separate the people from the problem
- Don’t make disparaging remarks about the team members – either in public or behind their backs.
- Solicit ideas from everybody
- Make sure everyone gets heard
For general discussion group purposes I would add a couple of things (not so different, but maybe clarifying):
- Do not stereotype people. This is related to “discuss the issue content, not the people”. It is a way of accusing people of being something they are not. Political stereotypes are used (as a crutch) by the media. They probably have some validity when talking about groups, but they don’t with individuals – at least individuals who think for themselves – which is probably most of us I hope. It adds nothing to the discussion that’s useful.
- Listen to understand, not to respond. I used to tell my kids, when your mouth goes open your ears go shut. You can’t learn much when you’re talking, but you also can’t learn much when somebody else is talking and you’re thinking about what you are going to say next.
- Understanding is not agreement, but it is important in building trust.
- As an individual participant in a group practice Don Miguel Ruiz’s Four Agreements:
- Be impeccable with your word. This is to have integrity, but it’s more than that. It’s don’t try to tear people down with your words as well. Use them for positive good.
- Don’t take anything personally. What others say and do has nothing to do with you; it’s a projection of their own reality and imagination.
- Don’t make assumptions. We especially get ourselves in trouble, I think, when we make assumptions about other people’s intentions. There is almost always more than one possible explanation about why someone says or does something. There may be a subversive reason why someone might do or say something, but there will likely also a perfectly legitimate reason as well. We have a tendency to assume the worst – especially if they disagree with us. But if we’re going to assume something that we really have no way of knowing (and often I have trouble not assuming something) assume the best. Besides which, if you can come up with a legitimate reason why something might have been done or said, then you’ve learned something, whether it’s the real reason or not.
- Always do your best. Your best may be different from day-to-day, but if you can do your best at any point in time then you can avoid self-judgment and regret.