Friday 18 January 2019

Seeking to Understand (2)

I blogged last week about the experiment we were proposing to run. The question we were exploring was the impact, on conflict-fraught conversations, of a commitment to listen, to seek to understand, and in particular to refrain from interrupting.

Yesterday, we ran the experiment, and here I want to record and reflect on my experience and my learning.  I will not name any of the others involved, as (although it wasn't invoked) I think the Chatham House rule is appropriate here, apart from saying that this meeting was of coaches and facilitators trained in, and committed to, Nancy Kline's Thinking Environment approach, and the process was expertly facilitated by Nancy.

At the start of the day, by way of a check-in, we were asked to consider What question would you have to answer in order to be relaxed when in conversation with someone whose view on an issue that matters to you is acutely different from yours? My question, in answer to that question was, How can I ensure that I bring my very best self to this conversation?  I had not thought long or hard about this, but I think it is significant, as will become clear later in this post.

We also had a five minute Thinking Partnership session with a colleague, and I used that to think about my anxiety about the forthcoming discussions. For at this point I should reveal that I was no passive observer of this experiment, but one of the protagonists (I nearly said, guinea pigs....)  I had volunteered to discuss the topic of abortion, taking the pro-life point of view (a topic about which I have also blogged previously, here and here). And although I did not feel very anxious I did have some concerns. 

The major one was that this is a topic that is clearly very sensitive, and it was statistically highly probable that in a group containing some 50 women, a number of them would have first-hand experience: I did not want to hurt or distress anyone. On the other hand, the agenda had been clear, and so I had to assume that people had chosen to attend knowing the topic; and I am sure that Nancy would have reminded me not to infantilise anyone.  I was also anxious, of course, that I might be disliked by the majority of those present for holding the views that I do - particularly as a man. 

I was also aware that I had not planned what I might say. That was quite deliberate, as the idea was to think out loud in each other's presence, not present a case.  But of course there are risks inherent in that. And then there was a very specific concern: the woman with whom I was in a Thinking Partnership that morning was someone whom I had known at College, lost touch with, and only met again, with much delight (35 years on) at the previous meeting of this group: it would be a shame if she found my views abhorrent and we were unable to be friends.  On that point, she was able to reassure me, which was both kind and valuable.

When the discussion was due to start, I noticed that my heart was going a little faster than usual, but otherwise I felt fine. And Nancy set the context, the ground-rules and managed the process so well that I quickly relaxed and was able to engage in the discussion.

And that was where it got interesting. The process was that each of us would talk for a couple of minutes, and then pause and listen to the other, seeking to give the highest quality of attention, and motivated by a curiosity about the other's point of view, and a real desire to understand it. And of course, we were both quite clear about the absolute prohibition on interrupting.

As a conversation, it worked remarkably well. The ground rules and the process meant that each of us was able really to think out loud, honestly and at ease; we each gave calm and reasonable expression to our strongly-held views; and also we each really listened to the other.  The effects of that were many, and all of them good. 

One was that I felt that I gave the most honest and lucid account of my views on the topic that I have ever done. Sometimes, talking about such a polarising issue, knowing that I hold a view that will be strongly opposed by others, I can adopt a tone and style that I don't like.  I think that was the significance of my opening question at the start of the day: How can I ensure that I bring my very best self to this conversation? This process made it easy to do so.  The respect and interest of my interlocutor ensured that.  And I think (and hope) that was reciprocal.

It also removed the risk of demonisation of the other from the discussion; something that is normally all too prevalent in such polarising conversations. For example, there were a couple of things that the other person said that I could have rebutted triumphantly, had I been intent on the point-scoring that often characterises such discussions.  And I imagine that the other person noticed some such opportunities presented by what I said. But because the focus was on understanding, rather than winning, such an approach simply didn't seem helpful.

And what that meant was that we were both able to hear and recognise the humanity that underpinned the other's point of view; and that we actually learned from each other and understood each other better at the end of the conversation.  The net result of which was that we both found that we felt more warmly towards the other at the end of the conversation than we had at the start; even though we continued to disagree about something important to both of us. That is, I think, a rare and valuable outcome.

The other benefit of this approach was that those listening to the conversation heard a much richer, more reflective and more thought-provoking discussion than they would otherwise have done.  A significant number thanked me afterwards, saying that this topic was never discussed; or that they had never heard the kinds of points I had made and it had really stimulated them to think further, and so on; and of course I saw many people approach my opposite number, and (I assume) make similar points.

And then, over the lunch break, I noticed that I suddenly felt emotionally wobbly; and later in the afternoon, mildly elated. So I realised that the experience had been more of an emotional rollercoaster than I had previously thought.  I am still wondering about the reasons for that.  I toyed with the idea that it was to do with relief that the imagined hatred of all the women in the room had not materialised; but I don't think it was that.  So my current theory (very tentatively) is this: normally I have maintained a strict boundary around my professional work, so that I do not express views on topics as polarising as this.  On the one hand because they are not relevant to my work; and on the other hand because they could be a distraction from that work.  But on this occasion I had deliberately blown a large hole in that boundary - a boundary that was only as clearly apparent to me after I had breached it.  But as I say, that is a very tentative hypothesis.

So all in all, a very rich experience, and one which I am sure I will continue to learn from as I reflect on it - not least as I ask myself: how I might use this learning in my professional work?


Since writing this, I have had some further thoughts, which may be read here.

Second update

And some more, here.

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