Sitting in a meeting with hard working colleagues, listening to one particularly energetic co-worker link our discussion of how to address the problem on the table with a long history of poor decisions by upper administration that need to be remedied.
As I was listening it occurred to me that if we want to move forward we have to learn to defer that common desire to score points by responding to these incredibly common efforts to contextualize our deliberations.
I am trying to choose my language carefully here, because these are important parts of our conversations. So, I call these efforts to contextualize, to remind us of the bigger picture, to align short-term problem solving with longer-term directions the unit wants to move toward.
At the same time, these often (not always) inject a pass-the-buck attitude into a problem solving conversation. Not in the sense that the speaker wants to avoid responsibility, but in the sense that the entire group of speakers and listeners, usually all nodding our heads in agreement, ride this wave from ‘what can we do about this now’ to ‘we cannot do anything until they fix that.’
So, as I listened I felt the urge to engage at the contextualization level, moderating the analysis by reminding everyone of additional factors, in the hope that this will then mute the tendency to veer off course and disrupt efforts to solve the problem on the table.
Knowing me, had I done that, I would have been easily drawn into a conversation about this larger context and how to interpret it and an unproductive response would then become more likely. I might focus on ‘winning’ by knocking down the argument about context (as one-side or incomplete or off-point)…by scoring points in the movie being written by the speaker, casting me as the villain.
When I do that, I fail to facilitate the conversation productively.
What I did do was listened longer, letting others contribute, and I noticed that the conversation did not veer off course as I had feared it might. Then, I returned to thinking about what concrete action steps we want to agree to in the meeting to move us forward.
As I proposed these, and I heard general agreement on the direction, I added in the middle a short comment about how we want to frame these efforts that allowed me to contextualize the contextualization strategically.
Later I was listening to the news, which (today) means suffering within a juvenocracy. And I thought that even with this president, perhaps particularly with a president like this, we need to defer that common desire to score points by responding to his outrageous idiocy, connecting the immature tweet du jour to the larger context where his bigotry and ignorance cast long shadows over our deliberations.
Rather than join his movie and let him cast us as the daily outraged, I listened and heard other voices talking about policy questions that matter and I returned to thinking about concrete ways to advance better policy (or thwart inferior policy) rather than getting lost in the never-ending debates about the size of his inauguration crowd.
So, when we are able to back off on our tendency to try to score points by knocking down another’s (sometimes good intentioned, sometimes not) tangents we are more likely to contribute to staying focused on addressing the conflicts before us, in more productive and collaborative ways.