Thursday, February 28, 2013

Facilitating Martians

Have you ever been in a situation where you're trying to collaborate with someone and they unexpectedly say or do something that makes absolutely no sense

This kind of dynamic is especially perplexing when the other person is someone you thought you knew pretty well. Perhaps you're in a group together when, out of nowhere, this weird thing happens. It's as if they were beamed into the conversation from Mars and clueless about context, objectives, and/or relationship. A bumper sticker bubbles up in your consciousness: What were they thinking?

As a professional facilitator I encounter this often enough that surprises of this ilk are no longer surprising. While I have not lost my capacity to be amazed at how people can be obstinately blind to how their message—or their delivery—is landing, or deaf to what others are saying, I've seen it too often to not understand it as part of the spectrum of normal human behavior. It goes with the territory.

While there can be all manner of explanations for what appears to you as a Martian invasion, the one thing you can be 100% sure of is that they won't think they're from Mars. They'll have a different story and it won't be that they're a sociopath, the victim of an alien probe, or Job's bane sent to test the faith of gentle-minded communitarians.

Let's stroll down the aisle and see what's on the shelf as possible explanations for the inexplicable:

1. Unusual Perspective
Not everyone sees the world the same way. On the one hand that's a blessing because it gives breadth to the consideration (other views, after all, may be more profound than yours). On the other, it's problematic because you have to understand it, assess its relevance to the situation, and discern how best to balance it with alternate perspectives—all of which take time (that sometimes you'd rather not have to take).

If you're not familiar with how the other person works with information their process may appear unfathomable. But that's not the same as their having no process, or no thoughts germane to the topic at hand. 

Suggestion: Try being curious rather than consternated.

2. Different Assumptions
Even when everyone is agreed that they're on the same team, it doesn't necessarily follow that you're playing the same game or by the same rules. All kinds of mischief can ensue from people working from different premises.

This could be the result of widely divergent prior experiences when faced with analogous conditions, or it could simply be unexamined bedrock for the conversation. When two people have different objectives and that difference has not been illuminated, it can be exhausting. Try running a train on track that's been laid with mixed gauges. 

Suggestion: Back up and check for common ground (a solid foundation) before trying to bridge the differences.   

3. Not Showing Your Work
Sometimes people draw internal conclusions that have not been revealed. While their progression may seem straight forward in their head, it's mysterious to you (and perhaps others as well).

For example, my wife has the view that I'm highly critical of her, to the point where it's seriously undermining our relationship. Because I'm a person with high standards, I know there's truth to my being labeled a "critical person." That said, I've been struggling for some time with the assessment that I'm exceptionally critical. With the help of a counselor, Ma'ikwe and I have recently uncovered that there was another mechanism at play (beyond the moments when I'm actually critical of her, which are a real thing).

Since childhood, I've had the habit of coping with unresolved tensions by having imaginary conversations with people I'm struggling with. In these moments I explore my feelings and try to process what I want to do them. I sub-vocalize and can be seen acting out the conversation to myself, lost to the world around me. While I've known for decades that I do this, I'm not always conscious of it.

Last week, Ma'ikwe reported that I do this about four times a day (I had no idea it was that often, but I believe her) and that whenever she catches me muttering she always fears it's about her. Yikes! Suddenly I was getting a much better picture of why she felt so weary of my criticism—she was adding to the total all the times I might be critical of her, and then not checking it out. Holy shit!

Suggestion: If you're not able to follow someone's train of thought, it should always be OK to ask for a route guide—whether you're enjoying the scenery or not.
4. The Relativity of Reactivity
There will be times when you'll encounter extreme statements that are fueled by reaction to something others said or did, perhaps you. (Isn't it amusing when the only thing you can agree on is that you both think the other is from Mars!) The water can get particularly muddy if you are unprepared for the reaction and you're thinking that what you said or did was perfectly normal and reasonable. The flavor of this dynamic (with cayenne added) can get ugly in a hurry.

Suggestion: If you suspect that there may be a non-trivial emotional response in the mix, it's probably a good Idea to check that out, and—if you find one—to learn what you can about what it is and what triggered it.

• • •
What all of this adds up to is that when you discover Martians in the room, you need an intergalactic translator. Thus, if you can respond with, "I'm not understanding what just happened. Can you walk me through how that makes sense?" it's almost certainly going to be more constructive than, "What the fuck was that all about?"

Mind you, asking for more information does not oblige you to be satisfied with their response or to support what the other person has said or done, but it does create some breathing room between you and a knee-jerk reaction, which tends to be more of an uh-oh moment then the aha! experience you were hoping for.

When you encounter Martians, what you need is not a space ship, just a space to shift.

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