The important piece is to stop the process when we’re in debate and start asking some questions that look at the assumptions that were made that slid us up into a place of debate.
I think sometimes debate is disguised as advocacy in meetings.
I think what dialogue does is breaks our brain out of the tendency to pick between one or the other.
That is where innovation happens, when I can take multiple different forms of thoughts and ideas and philosophies and meld them into something new to create a sculpture that we all stand and look around and say, I contributed to that, not I made that, but I contributed to that and I’m happy with the result that we have.
Typically in debate, you have two people who are talking, lots of words being exchanged, but very few of them are being retained and heard and remembered.
If we just let go of responding with a statement and we just ask a question that’s not rooted in judgment, that’s actually looking to seek to understand, that one action can change debate right in the middle of it to a dialogue.
Often when we’re being sarcastic, we are actually picking up a little dagger that’s in our little scabbard and we’re poking them right where it hurts most.
If sarcasm is a part of your way of leading, consider that you are doing more harm than good.
The number one characteristic that they found was not the years of technical experience, or the perfect personality match, it was the degree of psychological safety in that group, which is academic and PhD language for, “Can I be myself when I show up at work?”
Openness doesn’t mean you need to share everything; it does mean you need to show up authentically.
When I’m present to your humanity and I can be open to that and be moved by that and see the world in a different place because you see it in a different way, then that’s when magic and collaboration and adventure that makes us most alive, it is the place that we want to step into, even though it scares us.
Continuation from Ask Powerful Questions Part 1
Q: Decision making is part of all organizations, big or small, all boards, all school boards, school administration, corporations, decision making occurs all the time. Typically, decision making, if it’s being done across any number of people include some dialog, especially if you might be referencing a leadership team, or school board, or a corporate board. So, what I want to ask you to define or share the difference between is debate and discussion. So, if part of decision making includes discussion, is there a difference between debating and discussion? And if so, what’s the difference?
A (Will): …When we get to a place of dialogue, your needs are equal to mine, and I am more in a partnership with you. And I’m listening for understanding, I’m in a place of openness to hear what is actually occurring for you, I’m even willing to be reflective.
What happens is oftentimes, if we’re in a dialogue, you might say something that triggers or threatens a concern of mine, it might threaten a fundamental concern that I have or one of my values. Then, I’m going to make assumptions, and I’m going to start judging. As soon as I start making assumptions and start judging, it’s so easy for us to move into a place of debate. And if I show up in debate, while we’re having a dialogue, if I show up with a mindset of debate, it’s super easy and almost delicious for you to join me there. It takes real leaders, a real self-awareness to go, “Oh, we just slid into debate, now we’re looking for somebody to win, let me take a breath.” This is a great moment to come back to your intention and say, remember the intent of this conversation was, and that can bring us back down. But an important piece is to stop the process when we’re in debate, and start asking some questions that look at the assumptions that were made that slid us up into a place of debate.
A (Chad): Something to offer too, real quick. Education is filled with mission-driven people, even though we were just talking about apathy, right? It’s filled with people who are in it for the students, they’re in it not for the salary, for the aim, and the outcome, and the difference that they can make.
So, I think sometimes debate is disguised as advocacy in meetings, right? I’m going to advocate for the student and it turns into this myopic, it’s either my way or the highway. Like, I’m going to get this student this IEP or else, right? And they’re so ingrained in that place that it’s cut out the possibility for dialogue, questions and collaboration in that way, because it’s possible, right? That the people on the other side of debate, it’s possible that they also want what’s best for your student or whoever you’re advocating for. But when you’re in a place of debate, you can’t actually hear that, because you’re not listening, like your ears are not working and your defensive mechanism, your amygdala, the part of your brain that’s fight or flight. Will and I sometimes say it’s rather than fight, flight or freeze, it’s fight, flight or need to be right. That part of our lizard brain, that need to be right shows up, right?
Q: Yeah. That’s a great point. I love that you used the word advocate in the one side of a debate, is people say they’re advocating for something or they’re defending their side of it. So, if we’re understanding debate that way, really dialogue is what needs to happen for collective decision making, is that accurate? Dialogue rather than debate is what needs to happen for collective decision making? Because if I’m understanding how you frame debate, if there’s this, each person has this stance that they’re unwilling to concede any portion of, then you can’t truly accomplish collective decision making, if you’re working from those positions, is that accurate?
A (Chad): As you ponder that, Will. I don’t think dialogue makes decisions necessarily, right? There’s some other consensus, there’s some other steps there. I think what dialogue does is breaks our brain out of the tendency to pick between one or the other, right? We’re either Democrat or Republican, where you’re either right or you’re wrong, you’re either black or you’re white. And now often we see the world, our brains for whatever reason, are wired to see the world in a very black and white context, either this or this. And what dialogue does is open up the color purple, orange and blue, and all these other options, right? To get out of that metaphor land, right? It opens up like six different pathways that neither side would have seen, if you were in that debate, I’m going to win I have this need to be right mindset. But it’s not the end, you can’t just have a nice dialogue, and then the whole group agrees and then you decide.
Q: Sure. No, obviously, right. There’s more to it. But what I was trying to find out is, in any sort of collective group that’s trying to make sound decisions on a regular basis. Is debate any part of that or really does the group need to keep trying to get themselves back to discussion and dialogue? Or is there a place and time for debate?
A (Will): I think there are some rare cases in which there is a place for debate, if it is done intentionally, so this would be a really clear moment of intent, right? Now, there are some people who find debate just so delicious, that’s just how they show up, right? And you probably have some of those in your workplace, right? But if you want to make a collaborative decision, look, so leadership is making something happen that wasn’t going to happen anyway. So, the janitor could be a leader in a school, because they’re making things happen, they could choose to be making things happen that wasn’t going to happen anyway.
If you’re a manager, your job is just to keep the system moving, whatever the system is, whatever the process that’s been into place, if it ever falls apart, you get your whack-a-mole hammer out and you whack it and put it back in place, so everything is moving smoothly. So, teachers send their students down to the principal’s office because they just had to whack-a-mole, right? That student in that moment wasn’t fitting along with the protocols and the systems, but leadership is making something that wasn’t going to happen anyway.
So, how does that fit in with debate? Could a leader recognize, “Oh my gosh, in this room right now, what we need is a debate.” Could they help the room turn up the energy and say, “Alright, for the next 10 minutes, we’re going to play a game. And the game is, your job is to defend your side.” Or, a really fun thing to do is, your job is to defend the other side. Let’s take 10 minutes to defend the other side, bring as much emotion to it, try to find all the creeks and crannies.
My intent is when we’re done with this debate, is that we’re going to move back into the discussion because now the debate is going to open us up to see possibilities that we didn’t see before. We’re going to move back into the discussion and see, what could we make happen that wasn’t going to happen anyway, and that’s where collaboration happens, right? That is where innovation happens, when I can take multiple different forms of thoughts, ideas and philosophies, and meld them into something new, to create a sculpture that we can all stand and look around and say, I contributed to that, not I made that, but I contributed to that and I’m happy with the result that we have.
A (Chad): I want offer for those listening that are like “Cool, I’m interested in this idea of discussion and dialogue, but how do I get there?” Because I’m going to go into my meeting on Monday and fill in the name, is going to debate on this, he’s going to push against, he’s going to push against, whatever that is. Two really quick practical things to offer, there are a number of tools to help shift debate to dialogue. Two really practical things is, one, typically you’re debating two scenarios. So, one really practical thing is to just ask the question, what’s the third option, what’s the third path here? Or what is a third option or third path? Or how might we do this differently without either one of our solutions that we’re pushing toward right now?
And then the second is to simply shift from speaking in sentences that end in periods, and start speaking in a few sentences that end in question marks. Because when we ask questions of the other side, it does at least the first part of forcing our brain to hear what the other person is saying. Because typically in debate, you have two people who are talking, lots of words being exchanged, but very few of them are being retained and heard and remembered, because the other person is thinking, they latched on to what the person said in the first seven seconds of their pedestal speech, and then as soon as they’re done, right? The opposite of listening I would say is not talking, I would say that it’s waiting for your chance to talk, right?
So in debate, we’re just waiting for a chance to talk and the second they’re done with their three-minute, deep, complex explainer, we respond to this one thing that we disagreed with in the first seven seconds to what they said. So, if we just let go of responding with a statement and we just ask a question that’s not rooted in judgment, that’s actually looking to seek to understand, that one action can change debate right in the middle of it to a dialogue. I think it is useful to be able to have that tool to pull out when you’re able to, because the more common experience I think people will bump into, is that they’re not the facilitator, or the wrangler, or the leader of the meeting, but there’s a debate happening, you can see that it’s unproductive, but you may not have the title or the power to shift that from debate to dialogue, but simply inviting people to ask questions to each other or asking your own, can do that right away, title regardless.
A (Will): One of those questions could be is, what was the intent of this? Where did we start this conversation?
Q: Sarcasm is a way that a lot of people I think implement humor in some instances. And you talk a little bit about sarcasm in your book, so does sarcasm have its place, would you suggest in healthy dialogue and authentic connectivity, and I’m going to relate this first to the workplace. So maybe aside from personal life, in your professional life, do you believe that sarcasm can have a place?
A (Will): I do know that there are some workplaces that sarcasm is such a rich part of the culture that people have accepted it. What I think they’re blinded to is what sarcasm means, so the root of sarcasm means to tear flesh, and we tear flesh with our words, and we use it often under the guise of humor. But often when we’re being sarcastic, we are actually picking up a little dagger that’s in our little scabbard and we’re poking them right where it hurts most.
So, I got really clear about this, as I was adopted into a home in which sarcasm was rich part of the culture, so I got really good at it. And I could see the nuances, my dad could rip up anybody, he was just really… And noses, any size nose you had in our house was one of those things that we just picked on each other with. But what I realized is how it hurt, especially when we use sarcasm, so if you love to use sarcasm, consider that if you’re using sarcasm with something that cannot be changed, that is especially painful. I can’t change my nose, unless I’m going to go see, what are they called? Plastic surgeon, right? And they actually modify my nose. If you’re using sarcasm about things that can’t be changed, that’s immensely painful.
Sarcasm still shows up in my lexicon, and I try to choose it when I’m looking at objects, I think nobody has invested in. So, I might be sarcastic about how my cell phone is acting, but if I would use an Apple and if I was at Apple, and everybody’s invested in my cell phone, I might not use it, because those people have an invested interest in my cell phone.
So generally speaking, especially in the educational realm and if you’re an educator, and I would say even if you’re a principal or superintendent, if sarcasm is a part of your way of leading, consider that you are doing more harm than good. Consider that you are tearing flesh, and you might think you’re trying to bring some light humor in here. But if you’re not really clear about what your intent is, people are taking those sarcastic remarks personally, and carrying them away and either creating armor to come back or ammunition to come back at you harder, or they’re creating armor in order to create a defense against you. And when they start creating a defense against you, you’re not going to see them, they’re going to stop contributing, they’re going to go into that place of resignation and start leaning back more.
Q: I think going back to the humor part, I think there is a difference and this is just my opinion, so tell me if I’m wrong on this, but I believe that there’s a difference between true sarcasm and just tongue in cheek humor, sort of wry, what I would describe is like wry humor, I don’t believe is the same thing as sarcasm. Do you think that’s accurate?
A (Chad): Let me jump in with a different perspective. One of the reasons I think the second edition of the book is interesting is it comes from two perspectives, and Will and I don’t agree on everything. To offer a little bit of dialogue, not debate, about sarcasm, I would say that since Will has given me that that route to sarcasm is to tear flesh in the original Greek. Made me think a lot about the intention of being sarcastic because I am also, I tend to use sarcasm very often.
I can say one way that I repeatedly have observed some data that sarcasm has worked well, is when I’m using sarcasm with the intention of empathy. So, I’ll hop on a call with a client, and they’ll tell me a little bit about how things are going for them. And usually, it’s something in the realm of too much to do in too little time. So, I’ll reflect back in sarcastically and say, “Oh, it sounds like you have ample amounts of time to just like sit alone in a chair and ponder the meaning of life.” Right. That would probably fall into the category of sarcasm, but it’s with the intention of saying, I hear you and I see you in this moment and I recognize you’re really busy and overwhelmed, without saying that.
Now, could you probably say that in a way that also the person wouldn’t feel hurt? And could you reflect and accomplish the same empathy and the same aim differently? Sure. So I think, there’s not a chapter in the book that says like, here’s how to use sarcasm because I think it’s much more frequently used as a tool and display as a common tool for someone who’s being passive aggressive, to say something that’s true, without having to go through the discomfort of saying it as it is. I don’t think is most often how sarcasm is used, especially with people who are really close to you.
I think I find that time if I’m really raw and honest here, I think when I use sarcasm to tear flesh, I find it eking out in a conversation with my wife, which is maddening to think about, right? She’s the last person on the planet who I want to hurt or injure, right? And yet I think with my words sometimes sarcasm does come out in that. So, the higher our comfort level with somebody gets, the more likely we are to get sarcastic potentially. Very few people you meet at a networking event are brutally sarcastic to the people they just met, very few. And those people who are, you usually are like, “Whoa.”
Q: Yeah. It’s a good kind of second perspective on it. So, I wanted to ask you to talk about openness. Part of the sort of principles contained in the pyramid include, as we’ve talked about a couple already, intention, rapport, openness, listening and empathy. So, I wanted to focus on openness a little bit, which can be hard to achieve for some people, and especially in work environments that can be a little challenging I think, because it puts oneself in a vulnerable position. So, I want to kind of hear from you about openness in professional environments and also, if there’s a way to bring it into the situation we’re in right now. We’re not even in the same room with one another in many of our professional environments because of the current pandemic situation. So, is there a way to kind of talk about how openness can be achieved in a professional environment where folks are not feeling too vulnerable, and then tie it to kind of where we’re at right now, is that achievable?
A (Chad): I think the quick response is, this is one of the most common push backs that we received from the book, if we’re bringing this into a company particularly in the realm of HR. What do you mean “Ask Powerful Questions: Create Conversations that Matter?” We’re at work, we have to have this professional boundary. And I think it’s a really valid thing to think about and concern is what is the level to which you share and disclose? And I think part of the reason that push back comes so often is mistaking authenticity and vulnerability for really deep conversations about your secrets, right? I think authenticity, I would say you can have an authentic and vulnerable conversation about the weather, if you are being true and expressing your honest thoughts, perspectives, ideals. I think when we put a mask on and pretend to be somebody who were not in a particular mode, I would say that you’ve done the opposite of openness, right? You’ve created closed offness.
And then the other quick thing is Google, company that’s got 100,000 plus employees a couple years ago launched this massive internal research project, to identify what are the characteristics of the highest performing teams at Google. And the number one characteristic that they found was not the years of technical experience, or the perfect personality match, it was the degree of psychological safety in that group, which is academic and PhD language for, can I be myself when I show up at work. So, it’s an interesting data to consider. Openness doesn’t mean you need to share everything, it does mean you need to show up authentically, I think and there’s a pretty big difference between, right? I’m authentic I can open with many, many people, but they don’t know everything about who I am in the world and I think that’s very okay.
Q: Will, any final thoughts on connecting authentically, presently, in our remote circumstances?
A (Will): Well, in the relationship to openness, I think oftentimes, what gets in the way of me being open and I see this in workplaces too, is my need to be right. And when I have a need to be right, I’m only looking for evidence that proves that I’m right. I’m only listening for the words that support my worldview. So, in relationship to openness, I agree with Chad, it doesn’t necessarily mean that I need to share my deepest, darkest secrets, or even the thing that’s going on for me right now, which is really big.
And can I show up at this gathering of three of us knowing that the world is about to listen to us, can I show up in such a way that I am going to be moved by something that you say or that Chad says. Am I able to receive a perspective that will change my own perspective? Am I willing to leave the place with which I know I’m an expert and move into the unknown where I’m going to explore? So, sometimes when people are challenged by the openness concept, when we frame it as, are you an expert or an explorer, there’s a way that helps unlock it for people.
As an educator, if I’m in the front of the classroom, I am the expert, but if I teach from the place of expert, I just create a lecture. But if I teach from the place of an explorer, then suddenly everybody else wants to go exploring with me, I may pick up their tools in order to be able to do that. And sure, I’ve got a map, I’ve got the compass that’s going to navigate us through that, and every time I teach, I learn something, that’s why I love teaching. And I’m guessing that’s why generally people love to teach, and that’s why they move into leadership positions because it’s in stepping into that unknown that we go on an adventure and we learn something.
I show up into a meeting in which I am the expert and I’m not willing to step into the unknown, my need to be right, which I’m saying is the opposite of openness not closed. The need to be right shows up, I need to look good, I need to be valued, as soon as that is part of my mindset, then I’ve lost the present moment. And if I’m doing that from a teaching place, if I’m doing that from a leading place, I am teaching the past, I am leading the past. I’ve taught the students who I’ve taught in the past, I’m leading the people that I’ve led in the past, and I’m not in the present moment with your needs, your concerns, your dreams, your desires and your humanity. When I’m present to your humanity and I can be open to that and be moved by that and see the world in a different place because you see it in a different way, then that’s when magic and collaboration and adventure that makes us most alive, it is the place that we want to step into, even though it scares us.
A (Chad): So, we have the benefit of cheating a bit and recording this over video, over Zoom. And one thing I can see just an energy, you Annette and Will is that, we probably keep talking for another 72 hours on this. I want to offer because we can’t do that, I want to kick out before we start to wrap and shift gears. I want to kick out, Will and I exist on the planet to make connection and engagement easy for groups. As part of our mission, part of the reason that we created the book was to package these ideas and share them. We’ve also created a handful of card decks and other really practical easy to use tools, which we’ve made digital versions freely available of, to give access to everyone.
So as one sort of final tool to offer, if you were struck by this conversation or interested, I would welcome you to check out our website at weand.me/ideas. We’ve got a ton of free resources and tutorials segment of the book, things you can download for free of charge and we won’t spam you or send stuff your way, we created it simply to make connection engagement easy.
Q: And the second edition of Ask Powerful Questions is available everywhere, Amazon, wherever folks are buying books, correct?
Chad Littlefield, M.Ed.
As a speaker and professional facilitator, Chad designs fun, challenging, and engaging experiences and tools that break down communication barriers. He has spoken at TEDx and is the author of the Pocket Guide to Facilitating Human Connections. He is also the creator of We! Connect Cards™, which are now being used to create conversations that matter within companies in over 80 countries around the world and on 6 of the 7 continents. (Free deck if you live in Antarctica.) Chad lives in Pittsburgh, PA with his wonderful wife and son, Kate and Otto, though they all travel often. View Chad’s full bio here.
Will Wise, M.Ed.
Will Wise has over two decades of experience custom building leadership programs for corporate and nonprofit groups. He has earned a reputation as one who can transform groups and people into their best selves. Tens of thousands of people have been empowered with positive communication skills after spending some time with Will and We and Me, Inc. Most recently, Will released his new book, Ask Powerful Questions: Create Conversations that Matter, now a #1 Amazon Bestseller! Will lives in State College, PA with his amazing wife, Heather, and their three children. View Will’s full bio here.