TITLE: What Would Have To Be True... AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: July 01, 2011 2:29 PM DESC: ----- BODY: Yesterday, I read Esther Derby's recent post, Promoting Double Loop Learning in Retrospectives, which discusses ways to improve the value of our project retrospectives. Many people who don't do project retrospectives will still find Derby's article useful, because it's really about examining how we think and expanding possibilities. One of the questions she uses to jump start deeper reflection is:
What would have to be true for [a particular practice] to work?
This is indeed a good question to ask when we are trying to make qualitative changes in our workplaces and organizations, for the reasons Derby explains. But it is also useful more generally as a communication tool. I have a bad personal habit. When someone says something that doesn't immediately make sense to me, my first thought is sometimes, "That doesn't make sense." (Notice the two words I dropped...) Even worse, I sometimes say it out loud. That doesn't usually go over very well with the person I'm talking to. Sometime back in the '90s, I read in a book about personal communication about a technique for overcoming this disrespectful tendency, which reflects a default attitude. The technique is to train yourself to think a different first thought:
What would have to be true in order for that statement to be true?
Rather than assume that what the person says is false, assume that it is true and figure out how it could be true. This accords my partner the respect he or she deserves and causes me to think about the world outside my own point of view. What I found in practice, whether with my wife or with a professional colleague, was that what they had said was true -- from their perspective. Sometimes we were starting from different sets of assumptions. Sometimes we perceived the world differently. Sometimes I was wrong! By pausing before reacting and going on the defensive (or, worse, the offensive), I found that I was saving myself from looking silly, rash, or mean. And yes, sometimes, my partner was wrong. But now my focus was not on proving his wrong but on addressing the underlying cause of his misconception. That led to a very different sort of conversation. So, this technique is not an exercise in fantasy. It is an exercise in more accurate perception. Sometimes, what would have to be true in the world actually is true. I just hadn't noticed. In other cases, what would have to be true in the world is how the other person perceives the world. This is an immensely useful thing to know, and it helps me to respond both more respectfully and more effectively. Rather than try to prove the statement false in some clinical way, I am better served by taking one of two paths: I am still not very good at this, and occasionally I slip back into old habits. But the technique has helped me to be a better husband as well as a better colleague, department head, and teacher. Speaking as a teacher: It is simply mazing how different interactions with students can be when, after students say something that seems to indicate they just don't get it, "What would have to be true in order for that statement to be true?" I have learned a lot about student misconceptions and about the inaccuracy of the signals I send students in my lectures and conversations just by stepping back and thinking, "What would have to be true..." Sometimes, our imaginations are too small for our own good, and we need a little boost to see the world as it really is. This technique gives us one. -----