How To Help Adversaries Upgrade Their Conversation

If you have two adversarial positions in a conversation, how can you take it to a higher level? That’s a great question from Terry Roof on my recent blog post.

My top tip would be for you to stay curious. Isn’t that interesting? Two people taking exactly the opposite views of the same situation… what must be true for that to be happening, and to make perfect sense to the people concerned?

My understanding of Judith Glaser’s model of three levels of conversational quality would be that most “adversarial” conversations would happen at Level II. That’s where it’s all about status, position, power and influence.

Here are her definitions:

  • Level I: Tell-Ask. Transactional, exchanging data and information
  • Level II: Advocate-Inquire. Positional, working with power and influence
  • Level III: Share-Discover. Transformational, co-creating a successful future.

I’m pretty sure Terry’s specific examples of adversaries, Trump and Kim, would sit in the Level II zone. As I understand it, that’s where they want it to be.

I’m no expert on international diplomacy. Two members of a team getting into a long-running battle over a technical issue, which turns into personal animosity and starts to split the team is more my kind of line. But I think general principles surely apply.

In both kinds of situation, what the rest of us may want is pretty irrelevant. If only we could reach inside them and flick a switch to change their minds! But that’s not how it works with human beings. Frustratingly, it’s not usually possible to ‘fix’ people who don’t want to be ‘fixed’.

But what if, in some parallel universe, the adversaries wanted to step up to Level III? What if they wanted to have a transformational conversation, and told you so? Where would you invite them to begin?

There are two interlinked steps, I think.

  1. Find a way to introduce each of them to the other’s reality. To get them puzzled about the other as a real person, rather than as a kind of cartoon character who is “just like me, except wrong”. To move them, as Caitlin Walker puts it, From Contempt To Curiosity, so that they start to inquire about what’s really going on behind the mask. What must be true for what is there to make sense?
  2. At the same time, it’d be important to equip them with the inquiry skills to probe gently, without giving offence. People who’ve never done this don’t necessarily know how to do it, right off the bat. There aren’t many models of great listening and great questioning available – being a good listener doesn’t usually make you famous.

Based on this, if you happened to be there, in the room with the adversaries, what could you do?

You might try asking some Clean Language questions.

  • “And when you think A, what kind of A? Is there anything else about A?”
  • “And when you think B, what kind of B? Is there anything else about B?”
  • “And when you think A, and you think B, what would each of you like to have happen?”

You’d both be introducing the idea that each party had a legitimate point of view, worth exploring. You’d be demonstrating probing, non-judgmental questioning. And you might just guide their attention away from problems and towards outcomes, starting a Karma Cycle.

  • What other ideas do you have? And what questions come to mind for you? Please post below.

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