Difficulties with the ‘what happened?’ conversation


July 9th, 2009

A while back Roland Harwood of NESTA blogged about connecting and networking and relationship building. I’ve found myself using the premise of his argument – conversations first, then relationships, then transactions – many times since, and try to provide opportunities for people to have conversations and develop relationships.

I suspect many of us have lost our capacity for conversation, maybe even relationship building. A bit like our lost capacity for story. We want to go straight to the transaction – for whatever reason, usually to ‘save time’. We don’t want to ‘waste time’ with conversation and relationship building. We’re busy. We need to get on with it, for heaven’s sake!

When facilitating with a group I try to build in as much conversation as possible. Ideally, that means ditching the powerpoint, the tables, the agenda, and the outcomes. Most clients might agree to some, but not all.

When people are given an opportunity to be in conversation with one another (an unusual situation by all accounts), and when they are talking about a subject they’re passionate about, it’s not surprising that arguments develop. Especially when they focus on the ‘what happened?’ conversation.
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The ‘what happened?’ conversation is seductive. Our media, our politicians, our bureacrats and even those closest to us, all engage in the ‘what happened?’ conversation. Here in Australia it’s institutionalised, especially in the Bushfires Royal Commission.

My understanding of the ‘what happened?’ conversation comes from my own experience (!) and the book by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen: Difficult Conversations.

One of the hallmarks of the ¬†‘what happened?’ conversation is that people disagree. Disagreement per se is not a bad thing; disagreement when it becomes the sole focus of our conversations, because we care deeply about the topic, can be devastating.

I overheard a young woman on the train having a ‘what happened?’ conversation on her mobile. It went something like this (and I could only hear one side): But you said you would pick up the car from the mechanic. (Pause) That’s not what I said. (Pause) You said you would do it. Why didn’t you? (Pause) Give me a break! I did not! (Disconnected). Ring Ring. What? (Pause) No! (Disconnect).

In the book, the authors describe what’s going on:

“We think they are the problem. They’re selfish. Or they’re naive. Or they’re controlling, or irrational. And they think we are the problem.”

We have different experiences so we each make sense in own way of ‘what happened’. This leads us to argue and importantly, blocks us from exploring each other’s stories.

We see things differently because we have different information, we notice different things. And therefore we have different interpretations and our conclusions reflect self-interest.

So what can we do when we find ourselves, ¬†or those we’re facilitating,¬†participating in a ‘what happened?’ conversation?

Be curious. Stand back and ask – what’s your story? And embrace both stories – adopt the ‘and’ stance. We all carry pieces of the story. Arguments develop when one person thinks they hold the ‘right’ story and everyone else is ‘wrong’.

Workshops that purport to be about learning and improvement are prone to the ‘what happened?” conversation and may quickly descend into blame and finger pointing.

As facilitators we need to be cognisant of the ‘what happened?’ conversation and be prepared to make space for curiosity and understanding. This, I think, is even more important than outcomes and actions.

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