Always Draw The Elephant

I’ve noticed an anti-pattern in meetings, something to be avoided.

Perhaps you’ve heard the tale of the Three Blind Men and the Elephant:

Three wise men, blind with the frailty of age, were on a journey of discovery. Having never seen wondrous creatures like an elephant, they were delighted on their journey to come across an elephant and decided to experience it first-hand. In this case, literally, as the mahout allowed them to explore the elephant through touch. Afterward they headed to the tavern to drink and discuss their findings.

“The elephant,” the first wise man said, “is a great powerful snake, and smells of hay.” For, you see, he had been holding the animal’s trunk.

“No, no,” said the second man sharply, who had been stroking the animal’s flank. “The elephant is more like a great mountain of rough flesh, taller than a man, and smells of dirt!”

“You’re both idiots,” the third said. “The elephant is long and thin, and if you pull on it, you don’t want to know what you’ll smell like!” For this unfortunate had had a hold of the animal’s tail.

The moral of the story is not so much to avoid the rear end of elephants–though that might be good advice–as to point out that if all you have is a part of the picture you can be entirely wrong without even realizing it.

“Without realizing it” is crucial. In a pack of smart, self-aware thinkers, we do our best to take the other person’s point of view, to examine an issue from all sides. If we know we might be lacking information, we can hunt for it–but if we don’t, we can’t.

This comes into sharp focus when people form a team to brainstorm. Each is possessed of different knowledge–some true, some important, some relevant. The trick is to get all the true, important, and relevant knowledge visible and shared. The challenge is that, like each wise man, each subteam may think it has the complete picture.

So you get together in a room. People start making points. Other people start shooting down those points or pulling them apart with “yes but what if X” comments. In the end you spend a huge amount of time sharing the information: each team has to explain what they’re talking about, translating it to the language of every other team in turn. And then you spend a ton more time reconciling the information, as each team has to dissect each other team’s presentation, requiring a readjustment of possibly all other teams’ contributions as well. With two people it’s annoying; with six, it gets ridiculous.

This is where the slides come in. I can’t believe I’m saying that, because I’m supposed hate slides–but it’s not true. I love slides. I hate boring slide decks.

Slide presentations are a process; a ritual. They have a few specific purposes, and this is one of them: organizing information.

First, the slides are used for presenting. According to the ritual, the presenter gets to present, and the rest of the audience gets to ask questions–after the presentation (unless it truly is a clarifying question). This reduces the quadratic time to linear time, though possibly with a larger constant.

Then comes the reconciliation phase. At the very least, each person has seen–if not understood or integrated–everyone’s contributions. Perhaps they each have their own model, sketched out on a napkin or notepad during the other presentations, of how it all fits together.

Now all you have to do is reconcile these separate models, rather than doing pair-wise reconciliation or worse.

And that’s a huge win.


Five Steps for a Successful Conversation

Having a conversation is challenging. Most of us do a fair to middling job of it, and we can do a lot better.

We’re not taught to talk with each other. If we are taught to talk, we’re taught how to lecture (this is a lecture) or recite or report. Some people get taught to listen, which is good as far as it gets you, and is an important step toward learning to be a better conversationalist, but employing listening by itself can leave a conversation feeling lopsided.

I like conversing. I like having all participants contributing, having those contributions heard, and merging them into the conversational thread. I like conversing with people about deep, meaningful parts of their lives. To do this requires conscious involvement of the other people, because when people are sharing deep, meaningful parts of their lives, they depend on the other people in the conversation to support them.

In an attempt to have more deep, meaningful conversations with you, and for you to have more of them with your own circles, I have put together an overview of some of the key parts of having a successful conversation, written as a how-to and pulled from a number of sources.[1]

Do these steps in order. You may have to repeat them many times during a conversation. Don’t skip around unless you know what you are doing. The better you know someone, the more important it is you do these, so don’t think you can skip them because of that.[2]

Five Steps

1. Acknowledge: During listening, show the speaker you are listening through back-channel methods that don’t contribute meaning. Nodding, appropriately timed “uh-huh”s, eye contact all work in person. Online this is difficult. But you’d be surprised by how far an “I hear you” can go. Even when both people know what it means. Especially when both people know what it means.

2. Mirror: After an appropriate chunk, mirror: demonstrate that you have heard what they said and also understand what they mean by it. Your goal is to reflect back to them an image of themselves in you.

This can be as simple as parroting back what you think you heard, with enough space to allow for misunderstandings. (“It sounds like the coffee pot was being frustrating.” rather than “You are frustrated by the coffee pot”, which is disastrous if you’re wrong.)

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