Skip to content

Changing the Pattern

Do you ever feel like you’re having the same conversation over and over again? Maybe it’s with your boss, a colleague, your spouse, a parent, with yourself? I know I do, and it feels like being stuck in a well.

We might use slightly different words, shift our tone or emphasis, but underneath that superficial layer we’re playing out the same interaction again and again.

At work, it sounds like the manager who has had it with that team member she’s given the same feedback to after the last three projects. Or the ongoing sniping about delivery timelines being too short and resources being too few. Or the long-simmering enmity between Sales and Customer Service (“They over-promise.” “They’re just complaining.”) Or the round-and-round debates at senior leadership meetings about priorities.

If only we could find the magic words to break through the wall, to be heard in the way we mean. Maybe we craft increasingly convincing arguments (well, they’re convincing in our heads anyway), or we seek out the advice of others: “What should I say? How exactly do I make someone understand?”.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the tendency I see in myself and many others to fall into these patterns and get stuck. I’m all for exploratory conversation and divergent thinking, until that familiar pattern is triggered, and then I find myself immediately locked in the verbal equivalent of an arm-wrestling match. Other options are eclipsed and I just think about pushing forward as hard as I can, like some kind of conversation zombie.

As you might imagine, this rarely achieves the result I hope for, and even when it does it produces all sorts of collateral damage. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only human who does this.

If there are no magic words and trying to argue someone into submission generally doesn’t work, what other strategies can be employed?

One thing I’m exploring is trying to more clearly see the patterns underpinning these conversations, and how they could look different.

One of the useful ideas and models I’ve come across so far is David Kantor’s work on Structural Dynamics. Essentially, his research led him to posit that all conversations have structural patterns, made up of various combinations of four action modes (summarized beautifully below from the TeamCatapult blog).

  • Move: A move initiates an idea, action or direction in communication for getting the conversation started. You can think of this as setting the flow of the conversation in a particular direction.
  • Follow: A follow continues the direction (or flow) of the conversation, and in doing so, it supports a move. A follow does not always mean agreement; sometimes it can further inquire about a move.
  • Oppose: An oppose challenges or disagrees with the idea, action or course of the discussion. It pushes back, corrects and/or offers an alternative perspective.
  • Bystand: A bystand notices what’s happening and articulates that awareness (without moral judgment). It adds a neutral perspective for the good of the team, plus it helps the team see what’s happening and how they’re operating. You can also bystand yourself by telling the team how you’re feeling, what you’re curious about, or something else you see in yourself.

Kantor believes that by recognizing the patterns of these action modes in our conversations, we can zero in on where we are getting stuck, and consciously reorder or incorporate different modes to engage in new patterns and get unstuck.

This sounds a bit clinical, but I think these principles are embedded in so many of our practices as HR, OD, and learning professionals. I wasn’t at all surprised to hear similar wisdom from other sources in recent weeks as I began dissecting my zombie conversations.

In a wonderful recent podcast interview Jennifer Garvey Berger suggests that one mental habit of effective leaders is to ask different questions:

“What are the questions I usually ask in this situation? What would be a different question I could ask about that?”

Last week Jocelyn Glei, on her podcast Hurry Slowly, interviewed Priya Parker on how to have ‘transformative gatherings’. One of Parker’s key points of advice?

“Be mindful, don’t be on autopilot. Break your usual patterns, leave the scripts you carry behind.”

This makes me hopeful about the more frustrating and difficult conversations that I encounter repeatedly, as a participant or as a bystander. Guiding a manager to build and test a new pattern for their team communications seems to open up far more possibilities and options than helping them to write a script.

The notion of inviting the unexpected into our most well-worn conversation patterns calls into question an ugly assumption: that conversations are zero-sum; that there must always be a winner and not-winner. Perhaps the most attractive part of thinking about conversations as patterns with constituent parts that can be reordered is that it helps us notice the multitude of possible interactions that could result, rather than assuming that there’s one ‘right’ thing to say that will successfully ‘unlock’ the result we want.

Recommended Reading:

The Mental Habits of Effective Leaders: The Knowledge Project Interview with Jennifer Garvey Berger

I referenced this in my post above. I found this to be such a rich conversation, with lots of threads I want to follow in the coming weeks and months. One particalurly arresting comment from JGB was this (emphasis mine):

Our lives are living out answers to questions we don’t notice that we’re asking. Asking different questions helps us lead different lives.”

Bringing Masculinity into the Conversation – James Elfer, More Than Now

This is the second of James’ posts about the BAD (Behavioural Approaches to Diversity) Conference he attended here in Toronto. It’s well-written and thoughtful. Take a few minutes to read it.

“Gender inequality harms men. It forces us into boxes, mocks our fragility, distorts us with toxic expectations, isolates us from our families, damages our mental health and offers a poisoned pedestal from which we can hurt, belittle and limit those around us. Listening to how this twists the development of boys and young men, at a gender equality conference in North America, the day after Dr Christine Blasey Ford offered testimony about her sexual assault by a Supreme Court Nominee, was a searing, unforgettable experience. Allyship with women is an urgent part of the answer. But inclusion IS for everyone.”

The Other Half – Quartz at Work

This fourth installment of the Leah Fessler project “How We’ll Win” is a collection of interviews with 50 (yes, 50) “industry-leading men” on what it means to be a man in a post-Me Too world. Incredible reading.

“Toxic masculinity is not only the biggest threat to women in our society, it’s the biggest threat to men as well. All over this country men are not only ruining other people’s lives, they are ruining their own—and making us all less safe in the process. I mean this in the most serious way imaginable. Toxic masculinity is not just at the root of sexual assault and misconduct and abuse, it’s at the root of war and terrorism and most gun violence as well.” – Shaun King

 We’re the Organizers of the Google Walkout. Here Are Our Demands – Claire Stapleton, Tanuja Gupta, Meredith Whittaker, Celie O’Neil-Hart, Stephanie Parker, Erica Anderson, and Amr Gaber, The Cut

If anyone still thinks that the #MeToo ‘moment’ has passed, this week should have been (yet another) wake call.  Approximately 20,000 Google employees staged a walk-out to demand change to the ways in which Google addresses harassment, discrimination, and systemic racism. This article was written by the 7 core organizers of that walk-out and lay-outs the demands of the protesting employees. These include:

  • An end to Forced Arbitration
  • A commitment to end pay and opportunity inequity
  • A publicly disclosed sexual harassment transparency report
  • A clear, uniform, globally inclusive process for reporting sexual misconduct safely and anonymously.
  • Promote the Chief Diversity Officer to answer directly to the CEO and make recommendations directly to the Board of Directors.

The authors end their article with this:

“A company is nothing without its workers. From the moment we start at Google we’re told that we aren’t just employees; we’re owners. Every person who walked out today is an owner, and the owners say: Time’s up.”

I’m grateful to be addressing an audience at the HR Leaders Summit on this topic on November 14th. If you’re going, please consider attending my session: “Beyond Compliance to Culture: HR in the Era of #MeToo”.

Photo by Silvio Kundt on Unsplash

At the Threshold – Liminality and New Roles

I began a new role at a new organization a few weeks ago, and I’m once again appreciating the unique and precious experience of being in a liminal space.

The concept of liminality comes from anthropology, and refers to a finite period in which we stand with one foot in a new literal or metaphorical place and identity, and one foot out in our old place and identity. We are still an outsider, but are in the process of deliberately becoming an insider. This is a special, fluid, and confusing time, one in which our understanding is incomplete, and our new role is still solidifying. In a liminal period, we still lack much of the context that insiders have, which means our understanding of the new is incomplete. But this lack of shared history with other insiders (and often the assumptions that shared history creates) can sometimes help us briefly see with greater clarity than the insiders.

Read more

Where the Cracks Come From

Burnout. Like a particularly unforgettable destination, those of us who’ve paid a visit nod knowingly to one another. No matter how long ago it was, we recall the familiar landmarks of our journey with easy clarity. And we never want to go back.

And yet, earlier this year I found myself retracing my steps along the route to burnout. The déjà vu gave way to a gnawing anger at myself. I was older, even a little wiser! How could I let this happen again?

Read more

You Are What You Read

We are awash in great writing. There’s never been a time in history when so many have had access to so much high-quality content, often for no more than the price of a monthly data plan.  As an avid reader, this is a blessing and a curse. I’ve failed again and again to deliberately direct my attention to the things I plan to read, rather than be distracted by enticing articles or blog posts floating along in the current of my Twitter feed.

One of the strategies that’s helping me get better at this has been outsourcing my reading decisions to trusted curators by subscribing to their newsletters. I route these newsletters into a folder in my Gmail inbox and work through them on the weekend. This batching process allows me to scan any links shared in these newsletters in one go and decide which, on balance, seems most relevant, interesting, and thus worth the investment of my reading time.

Read more

Cancer & Resilience in the Workplace: an Interview with Alyssa Burkus

Alyssa Burkus is the Head of Learning Strategy at Actionable, the founder of ShiftWisdom, a cancer survivor, a brilliant and hilarious colleague, and a dear friend of mine. I’ve learned so much from watching her navigate her lymphoma diagnosis, treatment, and recovery  –  about what a bad ass she is, about lymphoma, and about what to do (and what not to do) to support a colleague with cancer.

She and I have had lots of amazing discussions over the years about change, learning, and resilience in the workplace, but I’ve been particularly fascinated by the many parallels that Alyssa has drawn between these topics and her most recent experience with cancer. I wanted to invite you to share in that conversation.

Read more

The Utility of Self-Doubt

For a long-time I took self-doubt as a signal that I lacked knowledge or ability. This was particularly difficult to untangle because early in my career (and at regular intervals since) self-doubt has coincided with a lack of knowledge or ability. But untangling these two things (self-doubt and actual capability) was important, because the relationship isn’t causal, and continuing to believe that it was may have prevented me from capitalizing on the value of self-doubt.

Read more

Organizational Microclimates

I was in San Francisco for work last weekend.  It was great. San Francisco is the perfect city for people that hate being hot, hate being cold, and that love being angry all the time. That’s because of its microclimates. Due to hilly terrain and oceanic currents, weather conditions can vary dramatically between different pockets within the city.

Read more

Change. I Don’t Buy It.

Among the many workplace phrases that I would like to make illegal is “getting buy-in”. It’s almost always paired “WIIFM”, which stands for “what’s in it for me?”, and is short-hand for the way we imagine a totally average employee who is also a diabolically shrewd and calculating villain assessing our carefully crafted change initiative or program implementation.

Read more

Beneath the Veneer

Everyone wants to improve their brand. Hardly anyone wants to improve themselves.

I get it. I love to exercise, but will be the first to admit that buying workout clothes is more fun than actually getting myself to the gym. Writing about having difficult conversations is infinitely more enjoyable than actually having them. Talking about your great company culture is much simpler than figuring out how to make sure it lives up to your description every day.

Read more

Civility at Work: Should We Just Do It?

The costs of incivility in the workplace are easily felt, though perhaps harder to quantify. Calls for civility then, a common refrain lately in and out of the workplace, seem like common sense. But is that definitely the case?

Read more