When having a difficult conversation, most people start with what happened. This is often the easiest place to start, after all, those involved have witnessed the event, all remember what happened. But this is not the case: we don’t remember everything that has happened, although we do remember what we think happened, what we think about what happened, and what aspects we have focused on.
We experience everything through a personal lens built from our individual templates. This lens is something that includes our experiences, values, beliefs, viewpoints, wants and needs. It is always a lens that is far from perfect – our cognitive biases distort and block information. And if information does get through, we have a tendency to use this to support our views and to ignore anything that might contradict them.
Focus on experiences
Focusing on experiences, both yours and those of the other person(s), helps to encourage dialogue, moving the focus away from what people think to what they believe and the judgements they are making. Doing so will help you, and the others, to consider what it is in your life and upbringing that has led you to hold the values you do, the perspective you take, and your worldview. We all have different backgrounds, so each and every person’s views are in some ways different to each other. We therefore need to understand what it is that we see in the same way as the other person(s) and where our experiences, and views, differ.
We don’t have the full picture
In any conversation, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, some things are known, some are partially known, and others are hidden. A conversation is all too often a bit like looking at a large painting hung high on the wall, in the dark, using a small and inadequate torch. We can see the picture in the centre of the beam quite clearly. As we look towards the edge of the beam, things are not quite so clear, but we can nonetheless make out that there is something there. And beyond the beam, there is darkness, even though we can see that we have not seen the edge of the picture.
Conversations are a bit more tricky than that, as we don’t have a nice clean edge to what is relevant. We have to make a judgement about when something is relevant, or not. And, of course, what may not seem relevant to me might be very relevant to you.
Impact and intention
Our actions have an impact on others, sometimes it is a good impact and sometimes not. Each of our actions has an intention and an impact. We tend to assume a person’s intention based on the impact of their actions on us. If the impact on us is negative, we assume that the intention was bad. The problem with this is that good intentions can sometimes (quite often, in fact) have a negative impact.