The What Happened lens

Difficult conversations are almost never about getting the facts right. They are about conflicting perceptions, interpretations and values.

Douglas Stone, co-author of Difficult Conversations - How to discuss what matters most

In a restorative dialogue, most people start with what happened. This is often the easiest place to start, after all, those involved witnessed events and remember what happened. But, as every detective knows, this is actually far from being the case: we don’t remember everything that happened, we remember what we think happened, what we think about what happened and, even then, solely the aspects we focused on.

We view everything through the lens created from our personal templates. This includes our experiences, values, beliefs, wants and needs, as well as our blindspots and prejudices. 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 perspectives you take, and your worldview. We all have different backgrounds, so each and every person’s worldview is in some way different to each other’s. Starting to understand why we see and experience a conflict the way we do, and how this might be similar or different to how the other person(s) sees and experiences it, is the basis for dialogue.

We don’t have the full picture

In any conversation, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, some things are known, some partially known, and others 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 are aware that we have not seen fully to 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.

An additional dimension to a dialogue is that of depth, what lies behind what we can see on the surface – ‘the story behind the story’. This can entail:

  • events that we are unaware of that affect or shape a situation
  • experiences that influence how a person perceives a situation and how they act

In her book ‘Fierce Conversations’, Susan Scott describes a metaphor she calls, ‘Mineral Rights’:

If you’re drilling for water, it’s better to drill a one hundred-foot well than one hundred one-foot wells.

Susan Scott, Fierce Conversations

Many of our conversations skim across the surface, lightly drilling in numerous places. Rarely do we take the time to drill deeper in one place. In a restorative dialogue we may need to drill deeper and to do so in a number of places to uncover more of what is otherwise hidden.

Impact and Intention

Our actions have an impact on others, sometimes it is the intended impact and sometimes not. Each of our actions has an intention and an impact. We tend to assume what a person’s intention is based on the impact of their actions on us. If the impact on us is negative, we tend to assume that the intention was negative. The problem with this is that good intentions can sometimes (quite often, in fact) have a negative impact.

Assigning a negative intention to an action can start or support an existing perception of a person. This can begin or reinforce a downward spiral of interaction. Once a downward spiral has started, further actions become more likely to be perceived as negative, as they confirm the current impression – a negative confirmation bias.

In a restorative dialogue, it is therefore productive to explore actions, impacts and intentions. This exploration can sometimes reveal that the impact achieved was not the intended one; while maybe the intention was a positive one, the outcome was not. This new understanding can contribute to reversing the downward spiral, starting a virtuous upward one.