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Interrogating reality

Lion and cub

Lion and cub

This post continues my summary of Susan Scott’s Fierce Conversations (I got as far as the introduction last time!)

Chapter 1 (‘Master the courge to interrogate reality’) is the longest single chapter in the book, and will take me more than one post to summarise.

Interrogating reality

Reality changes

‘Interrogating reality’ is one of the four key purposes of a fierce conversation (the others being provoking learning, tackling tough challenges and enriching relationships). This is a never-ending activity, because reality changes. Scott uses a great quote from Lillian Hellman to illustrate this:

People change and forget to tell one another

Worse than this, we ourselves change and we mask it from ourselves quite well too.

Scott introduces the analogy of a beach ball to develop this idea further. Imagine that your organisation is a beach ball – with a blue stripe, a red stripe, a green stripe and a yellow stripe. You are the president of the organisation, and you spend all your time on the blue stripe. To you, your organisation is blue.

But your finance director may spend all her time on the red stripe – her reality is very different. So when you lay out your vision for the future in a board meeting, you talk about blue; and your ideas are brilliant, because they take full account of the blueness of the organisation. But your finance director wonders if she is working in the same organisation as you – she raises her concerns based on her red view of the organisation. Meanwhile the VP of engineering, who lives on the yellow stripe, is so uncomfortable in the face of conflict that he sits so still in the meeting that everyone forgets he’s there – he disappears, and no one can remember later whether he was there or not.

How often in organisations do people hide what they really think? When the boss outlines his or her latest idea, how often do people just smile and nod, while inside they are thinking “This is crazy!”, “It will never work”, “We tried that before and it failed last time!”. These are likely to be the very people who will have to implement the idea, in which they have no faith. How often do you find yourself saying things you don’t mean, just to be polite? What conversations have you not been able to have with colleagues, with your life partner or with your children?

Who has the turth?

Scott believes that most people would rather hear the truth, even if it is uncomfortable for us:

[R]ecognize that there is something within us that responds deeply to people who level with us, who do not pamper us or offer compromises, but, instead, describe reality so simply and compellingly that the truth seems inevitable, and we cannot help but recognize it.

In an organisation, as in a relationship, everyone has a piece of the truth.We only know what we know (the blue stripe, for example). So getting at the truth for an organisation requires everyone to put their piece of truth on the table. Does this take time? Probably. But not doing it might take longer. Failing to take into account the views of others will lead them to quietly sabotage your plans – why should they care about your views, when you show little interest in theirs?

A three-step model for interrogating reality

Scott offers a very simple, three step model which helps to get everyone’s reality in the discussion (this summary uses my words rather than hers):

  1. State your view (including your recommendation if you have one)
  2. Check for understanding
  3. Check for agreement

How does this work?

You should clearly state how you see things, including what you think ought to be done (if you have an opinion on that). Some people choose not to express their view, in the belief that it will influence others and stop them saying what they really think. Scott’s view, which I agree with, is that people will assume you have a view anyway, and will try to guess what it is. Better to just tell them. It also gives people a firm starting point to respond to.

You then check to see whether people have understood what you think – let people ask questions to clarify (and if anyone is looking puzzled or thoughtful, invite them by name to ask questions if anything isn’t clear). And then you ask a genuine question inviting people who see it differently to say how they see it – acknowledge that it may be hard for people to speak up, but show that you are genuinely curious about their point of view. So you can acknowledge that you only know what you know, and others in the room will know things you don’t know, and will see it differently.

It is your behaviour now that will make the difference between this being a genuine discussion, and the discussion becoming a ritual. If someone expresses a view that differs from yours, do not become defensive and explain how you were right all along. Be genuinely interested in the alternative view – could they be right? You need to be tentative about your own viewpoint – could your proposal be improved or a different idea be better? Scott also recommends calling on each person individually to express their view. And ask people to comment on each others’ views too, as well as your starting point.

Well, that’s it for now. There is more to come in this chapter, including a way of holding a conversation that stays focused on the most important topic, and drills down to what really matters. I’ll cover that in the next post.

* The photograph at the top is from Flickr.com, reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence.