Saturday, August 29, 2009

He Said, She Said

One of the least productive activities I get to observe on a regular basis is the fruitless pursuit of who said what to whom when.

I know people who will spend hours if not days searching through old emails or correspondences to try to prove that someone who says they said A actually said B. Although this type of activity may have merit in a court case, it almost never provides value in relationships; unless of course you're trying to end the relationship.

If you've found yourself in a relationship that seems to be stuck or has certain areas that are hot points or off-limits, then you're probably practicing the art of the fruitless pursuit of the facts.

In this blog, I'll speak to why we do this, and how to move to more fertile ground. These rules of thumb are equally applicable in business and in personal relationships. At least in those that you want to work.

Do You Want Resolution?
The very first question to ask yourself before pursuing the rest of this article is:
"Do I actually want to resolve this situation?"
A second and equally important question is:
"Is my relationship with this person more
or less important than getting what I want?"
If you answered "yes" to both questions, then please proceed with the rest of the article.

If you answered "no" to wanting resolution, then you want to focus on whether what you want is more important than having the relationship. If it is, then it may be time to move on; it if isn't, then your energy may be better spent pursuing how to be together or work together in the face of a fundamental disagreement, i.e., skip the argument and move on to relating.

The Facts Don't Matter
All around us, every second of every day, there are billions of facts happening. Trees are falling, trees are growing, hearts are beating, hearts are stopping, people are working, people are playing, dogs are chasing cats, people are chasing dogs. Billions and billions and billions of facts.

Statistically, we pay attention to none of them.

Therefore, the nature of our pulling some facts into the conversation and not others, is bias. It may be bias due to our interests and what we observe; it may be bias due to our agenda, items that support our point. The facts that we select don't tell us so much about what happened as what our agenda and biases are.

When a "fact" enters the conversation, rather than discussing the veracity of the fact, you might ask questions like:
"Of all the possible facts that we could bring into this conversation, why that one? What was the motivation? How does it relate to our agenda? What agenda does it relate to?"

Judge Ye Not...
Nine times out of ten, the pursuit of who actually said what is tied to a judgment of what we believe was said or a judgment of the speaker being a liar.

So, if you suddenly find yourself in a situation where you or someone else is relentlessly and perhaps heatedly pursuing the veracity of the facts, you might want to explore what the judgments are that are driving the heated pursuit.

In those instances:
  1. pause for a moment and breath
  2. acknowledge that you, the other person or both of you seem to have put significant emotional energy into proving or disproving the fact in question
  3. then ask yourselves, "what are the judgments that we're harboring about this fact that were so relentlessly trying to prove or disprove?"
Resistance is Futile
If you find yourself the target of judgment or the relentless pursuit of the facts, the easiest thing to do is to concede; just go with it. You can ask questions, like: "Let's say it all happened just as you said it happened. What would you like to do now?"

What often happens is that the person pursuing the facts suddenly gets to their real agenda. Oftentimes, the agenda has simply been your acknowledging them as right. Other times, you'll discover hidden emotions, beliefs and judgments. In either case, you can get past the facts and on to what's really going on.

Stay on Target
Over the years, I've become really good at running meetings. A critical skill has been the ability to nip in the bud the pursuit of facts and discussions that are not relevant to our agenda. Whenever someone begins pursuing a line of thought or set of data that seems irrelevant to our agenda, I always ask, "how does what you're talking about relate to our current topic of discussion?"

Sometimes, the person establishes a meaningful connection and we pursue the discussion. In other cases they don't and we take one of three courses of action:
  1. We drop the pursuit of that information and return to our discussion
  2. We decide that the information is important, but not timely; we put it up on the whiteboard and return to it later.
  3. We decide that the information has brought us to something even more important than our original topic. So, we switch topics and pursue the information.
I all these instances, the important thing is to always be aware of what you're trying to accomplish and then to constantly evaluate how what is being said relates to it. If something seems irrelevant, question it and then, drop it, board it, or pursue it.

Note, in order to do the above, you want to make sure that you know what your agenda is before starting your discussion or meeting.

Make Your Discussions and Arguments Productive
I believe that, by actively practicing the steps outlined above, even the most irrational, unreasonable and difficult to work with people can become highly productive diplomats. If you find yourself in situations with people who are difficult or challenging (even if those people are often you), try the tips from above.

Wishing you a wonderful weekend of rich, enjoyable, loving and productive arguments.

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