One type of work I do with organizations is to analyze how organizational members talk to each other in ways that encourage or prevent knowledge from flowing between them.
One way of talking that inhibits the exchange of knowledge is speaking with conviction. That may seem contrary to what we’ve all learned in communication and leadership workshops, where one of the lessons often taught is to speak with confidence- “sound like you mean it”. Yet, as I examine conversations in the work setting, stating an idea with conviction tends to send a signal to others that the speaker is closed to new ideas. When speaking with conviction people sound as though no other idea is possible, as though the answer is, or should be, obvious. For example:
“Look I’ve spent years studying Iran and I know that they will not be a threat to our military efforts in Iraq.”
This statement came from a “case”* written by the listener, not the speaker. When the listener heard this remark, his immediate reaction was, “He’s closed to any other point of view, I may as well save my breath.” and so gave up without further explaining his own perspective on the Iran/Iraq issue. Although a great deal of the meaning in this speaker’s remark came from the tone of voice used, even without hearing that tone, the choice of words and the format of the sentence effectively carry the message that he is uninterested in any other perspective than his own. For example, he started the sentence with “Look” which we tend to use to express exasperation; his claim that, “I’ve spent years studying Iran” is a jab at the listener’s lesser experience; the term, “I know” signals that this topic is not up for question.
When we’re in the midst of a conversation we can’t stop to examine every word, as I just did, to think about whether it sends the right signal. So trying to change the words people choose is not a good place to start if we want to help people bring more knowledge into their conversations. Rather, the place for the change to start is with the thinking behind the language. The words we choose are, after all, a reflection of how we think about an issue. The thinking behind the brief statement the speaker makes about Iran is that, “This is truth.”
David Bohm*, the great physicist and proponent of dialogue says,
“We have to have enough faith in our world-view to work from it, but not that much faith that we think it’s the final answer.” P. 4*
That would have been great advice for the speaker in the example. Neither people in general, nor this speaker in particular, can function effectively without reaching conclusions and using those conclusions to guide our actions – to do otherwise would leave us immobilized by indecision. But it is also true that we are unable to learn unless we stay open to the possibility that a conclusion we’ve drawn may not be correct or that circumstances may have changed.
What our speaker needs is to change his thinking from certainty to a willingness to entertain other possibilities - a change that is necessary if any conversation is to produce new thinking and learning. Bohm puts it this way, “Ideas must be vulnerable.”
If we were to put the speaker on the spot and ask him if there was even the remotest possibility that he could be wrong about Iran or that some data might be available to the listener of which he was unaware, the speaker would undoubtedly acknowledge that there is always room for doubt. Yet in the midst of a discussion, especially when trying to “win a point”, there is a great inclination to make categorical statements and then, having made them, feel obliged to defend them.
If our speaker could agree, at least in principle, that “there is always a possibility” then he would be able to act his way into a change in thinking – to “act as if.” William James said, “If you want a quality, act as if you already had it.”
So the question is, if I am really certain about something, how do I act as if I’m open to other possibilities, that is, without coming off as phony?
One of the very useful ways of acting out that belief of possibility is “perspective taking.” Perspective taking, according to researchers Johnson and Johnson* is “An active and non-evaluative attempt to understand the perspective and information of another person.” But it involves more than just carefully listening to another person’s explanation, perspective taking requires giving voice to the other’s perspective - articulating both the conclusions and the reasoning of the other person. (This is related to the idea that We Learn When We Talk)
To take another’s perspective does not imply agreement with it, but rather it's like trying the idea on for size. When I put on the “coat” how does it feel? What do I understand from this perspective that I could not see from my own?
Perspective taking is an action that produces some remarkable conversational results. That is particularly true when a team is working together on a problem. The value add of a team, over individual problem solving, is the variety of perspectives from which a problem may be approached. The conversational goal then, is to make sure all of those perspectives are not only heard, but also fully comprehended by the group.
Johnson and Johnson say, “In order to create a synthesis based on the best reasoning and information by everyone involved, individuals must, a) actively attempt to understand both the content and the information being presented and the cognitive and affective frames–of-reference of the person presenting the information and b) be able to hold both their own and other people’s perspectives in mind at the same time.” Being able to hold two disparate ideas in mind at the same time enables synthesis and can even engender an altogether new way of thinking about an issue.
Johnson and Johnson’s research shows that when individuals are competent in taking others’ perspective:
• more information is disclosed than occurs when each person simply makes a case for his or her own perspective
• communication is facilitated because the re-statement of others’ perspectives tends to make a complex idea more easily understood
• the information and reasoning of others are retained longer
• the results are more creative and higher quality solutions and more accurate problem solving.
Perspective taking does not require a person, like the speaker in our earlier example, to stop doing something; rather it asks the speaker to do something different – always an easier task. Moreover, perspective taking is not something that has to be learned. Children start to be able to put themselves in another’s shoes around five years of age. Before that, of course, they are amazingly egocentric. To take another's perspective does not take extensive training; it has only to be exercised.
So here’s the challenge, the next time someone suggests an idea that seems utterly preposterous to you, try perspective taking. Then see what results you get. What ever the results, you are likely to come away with new knowledge.
• Cases of actual conversations using Argyris’ right and left hand column format
• Bohm, D. in (1985). Unfolding meaning: A weekend of dialogue with David Bohm. Ark Paperbacks. P. 4.
• Johnson, DW and Johnson, RT, 1989 Cooperation and Competition, Theory and Research. Interaction Book Company