On a recent evening in a beach bar on a quiet bay in the Grenadines where our sailboat was anchored for the night, I met a gentle soul named Alvin who was native born and raised on the island. Despite the idyllic setting, Alvin was a troubled man. On the surface, he had little education, jobs are scarce, and he is in a desperate struggle financially. For many of us, that would be enough to cause us to give up. However, Alvin's troubles ran even deeper. Alvin said he longed for connection and conversation. He said his own people are very "contentious" with each other, leaving little- to-no room for meaningful relationships. His observation was so sincere and heartfelt that it "hooked me." I've been thinking about it ever since. How many times do I hear people say in meetings, "I disagree with that..." “You’re wrong about that…” or “You’re confused…” as if that approach was useful rather than instantly causing disconnection and the need to defend oneself.
Just last week I was working with a new client in a strategy workshop and experienced the same kind of gap between brilliant vision and passionate commitment juxtaposed with arguing, dismissing the input of others, telling each other they are wrong, and throwing out a variety of other dismissive comments.
In their marvelous book, "The Communication Catalyst," authors, Mickey Connolly and Richard Rianoshek simply and powerfully describe this cycle as: disagree -> defend -> destroy! Alvin is at the receiving end of that cycle in his daily life, with no capacities developed to alter the defeating pattern. His wisdom shows in that he has realized the dynamic that is the cause of his pain. Unfortunately, I have found few other people caught in this cycle who share his reflection and wisdom, particularly in professional settings. It seems to me a high percentage of people have an instant, automatic, and unexamined “Contention Response.” This is usually accompanied by repeating the exact same phrase, only louder, if the other party “doesn’t get it” as if louder will produce more results. In our highly competitive business culture, it is not only unexamined, it is often a badge of pride and honor to perpetuate this cycle. The problem is, it doesn't really work to create results. It may shut down the opposition to ideas and it may finish the conversation, but it doesn't create an atmosphere of innovation and/or successful collaboration.
This week we are leading a customized version of our Productive Interactions program for young indigenous leaders from across Latin America in Lima, Peru. Our invitation to this group comes from a brilliant indigenous Peruvian woman leader we have known and worked with for years through The Hunger Project. When she first learned of our work she said, “We’ve got to have that! We get together, share great vision and commitment and then we argue. It is imperative for us to learn to have much more productive conversations!” We really believe the ability to have productive interactions is the lynch pin for leaders and their businesses and/or organizations of any type to move to their next level of success.
If this communication cycle sounds familiar, then perhaps addressing contentiousness is a fundamental place for you to work to raise your productivity and that of your teams. An excellent start is to study our Operating Principles (free download here) and work with your group to adopt them as your "rules of engagement" when you interact with each other. I recommend starting with Principle #9 “explore truths – mine, theirs and ours” and Principle #7 “listen newly, be intentionally slow to understand.” Try practicing curiosity listening for just a week and see if it doesn't start to shift the productivity of your conversations.