ABC in a Nutshell

“Do everything you can to not make a assumptions.  Be mindful of the assumptions you do have, and of your external and internal responses when they are challenged.  As often as possible, whenever possible, start by asking the person with whom you are talking, the question “what does this mean to you?” and be genuinely interested in the answer.  Being genuinely interested is essential.  So is genuinely valuing that person’s experience for its own sake.

Cut & place everywhere.

Unpacking Assumptions

We all bring assumptions to what we do and see.  All the time.

A Better Conversation works with a variety of materials to help you “unpack your assumptions.”  That is, we help you figure out what your assumptions are, that heretofore you have taken as truth.  Or help see that you may be unwittingly assuming everyone makes meaning of a word/concept in the same way.  Or that a response means only one thing.  Or that a person may be doing something for different reasons than you assume.

When we “surface an assumption” we can see how we “mis”-understand what others are saying, doing, or expecting of us.  Then we can see how all this makes us feel, what this leads us to think, and what we do in response to those feelings & thoughts.

For a great example check out Trust Your Gut. I assumed my friend’s expression was one of boredom, when it wasn’t.

Here’s another example. Once, I was hired for a position because my work focused on teaching critical thinking.

Not long after starting my job, I was asked by someone why I was giving critical thinking exercises to a certain group of students.

I said, “That’s why I got hired.”

Respondent, “We didn’t mean those students. They can’t think critically.” (I’ll speak to how disgusting that comment is, later.)

Me, “Huh?!!! Of course they can.” (And yes, I proceeded to teach “those students” critical thinking skills – much to everyone’s delight!).

Exercise: So, let’s start right here. What assumptions did you bring to this post, or any of the others? Or even when you heard the name of our organization is called A Better Conversation?

Even if your answer is “I don’t know.” That’s a good place to start.

Just see if you can recall any assumptions you had and how or if those assumptions influenced what you read & expected.

Know Thyself

A Better Conversation works best when we start with knowing yourself.

Think Socrates. Socrates believed we all have insight that leads to knowledge that leads to happiness.

Insight is learning about ourselves, what matters to us and why. Insight is naming what values we care most about, those we treasure, will go to bat for no matter what. Insight is understanding how we define and make meaning of these values, and how we want to practice and live by them.

A Better Conversation works by discerning what these are for each of us.

Socrates called this the examined life. The one worth living.

Pick something that matters to you, that might seem playful, but important.  Start with something fun.

For example, many people love dogs. They love them because dogs provide unconditional companionship. They wag their tails when they see people, especially their owners, and we interpret their wagging tails as a sign they’re happy and happy to see us. Our heart melts. We feel pure joy. We smile. They wag their tails harder. We feel happy and good and loved. We feel better about ourselves and we find we’re in a better mood, and more patient and more disposed towards being kind and helpful to others.

All because a dog wagged his tail. Go figure. But there it is.

Exercise: Pick a value….

Start describing it.

Tell us what it means to you.

Why it’s so important.

Where did that value come from…?

Go from there. See where it leads.

Genuinely Listening

Exercise: Here’s a fun way to practice the “art” of genuinely listening, without adding your own thoughts or impressions on the matter.

Ask a good friend, your son or daughter, your partner…anyone who likes to learn something new…why they like something they really like, but you don’t.

Start with something easy.  Like why she likes Star Wars or why he likes electronic dance music. Or why your mother prefers Miracle Whip, or how your best friend can spend so much time on Facebook.

Just listen. Only listen.

Notice what comes up for you while you listen. Do you want to disagree with them? Dismiss it? Learn even more?  Feel any delight as you listen? What happens between the two of you as you engage in this exchange?

Ask someone to do the same for you.

Try it on a few different topics.  Have some fun!

Know Thyself – Advanced

This exercise is a complement to Know Thyself.

Choose a value that’s really important to you.  Something you’d go to bat for. Something you feel is the foundation of how you want to live. Now explore where your thoughts & understanding of that value come from.  Why is it so important to you?

Next step.  Notice how you feel if someone tries to tell you it’s not that important.  What comes up for you?  Be sure to notice and name all the things.  How do you want to respond?

Let yourself feel and claim all that.  You’re learning about you.  You’re getting that “knowledge” to which Socrates is referring.

Trust Your Gut

And your intuition. Just maybe not your immediate interpretation of what your gut & intuition are telling you.

Example: A while back I was sharing with a friend, a series of complex ideas I was working with. I’d recently interviewed a physicist who’d helped me get the tiniest clue as to what Einstein was talking about, and I was weaving it together with some of the philosophical and psychological theories with which I was much more familiar.

To say I get enthusiastic when I start connecting & sharing ideas is an understatement.  I get exuberantly exuberant.  I was talking at a rapid fire pace.

At one point in our discussion, I noticed a barely imperceptible – but perceptible to me – shift in my friend’s eyes. I immediately thought “she’s bored.”

We have the kind of relationship where we can be honest with each other, so I asked her if she was, indeed bored.

She was stunned by my question. It shook her up. “On the contrary,” she said. “I’m fascinated! What made you think I was bored?”

I said I just thought I’d seen a sign she was. I couldn’t even name what I’d seen. My gut had picked up something. I “could just tell.”

She assured me she wasn’t.

So I continued regaling her with my scintillating synthesis of theories.

My friend is exceptionally gifted at self-reflection in the moment.

She stopped me a few seconds later. “Wait,” she said. “I think you did pick up something. I did shift my eyes away. I can remember.”

Ah-ha, I thought to myself!

“But I wasn’t bored,” she said. ”I was fascinated. It’s just that I was still back on the first idea, which so interesting, I was still thinking about that…..and you’d already moved on to all the other ideas. I still wanted to think about the first part.”

OMG! What a head flip.

How many times in my life had this happened, and I’d assumed the person was bored? Just assumed! And believing my assumption was true, let myself be led down the rabbit hole of self-recrimination, shifting the conversation to something more light-hearted, chit-chat?!!!

Way too often!

Thankfully, my friend, being a psychologist and all, helped me explore those questions…and wow, what a change it’s made in how I check my immediate, reflexive interpretations of what I perceive. And being a highly perceptive person I’ve had more than my fair share of opportunities to do this questioning….and learn how often I’m right that I HAVE perceived something, but I’m wrong in how I’ve made meaning of that interpretation.

Exercise: Check with yourself. How often do you perceive or intuit something, then immediately think you know what the person is “communicating?” Have you ever checked with someone to learn if you’re right? How often is it an assumption you take as a truth? And what would happen if you learned there may be much more to the story than what you originally tell yourself?

My life changed, for the better. Maybe this can help you too.

{Btw, for a much more complex and sophisticated account of what I’m trying to say here, I highly recommend Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011)}.

Super Bowl + Adele?

At A Better Conversation we recommend practicing with fun, even whimsical topics, that have some meat to them, some investment, and for which there is enough material to make the conversation interesting, compelling…but most of all fun.

Before beginning the conversation remember our guiding principles:

  • Remember the inherent dignity of all, and to treat each person with respect & thoughtfulness.
  • Genuinely listen to what the other is saying, and not focus on what you want to say in response or your points.
  • Do not control the conversation so that it goes where you want it to go.
  • Remember to ask for clarification, even examples, to make sure you truly understand the others’ points (this helps w/ the genuine listening too, to keep the focus on what the others are saying and not on your already formulated opinion).

When it’s your turn or an appropriate time to talk, you’ll be given the same opportunity and accordance.


Okay, here’s a question: Do you think Adele could sing & carry the Super Bowl halftime entertainment?


Giving Up Control, Step 1

In Robert Kegan’s “Adult Development” class at Harvard Grad. School of Education, he does an exercise to illustrate how we often (unwittingly) are trying to control the conversation, even the very word our conversation partners will or should say.

He asks a student to say a word. For example, the student says, “Red.”

Then he – the professor – says another, in an effort for the two of them to build a sentence. The professor says “sun.”

The student is then asked to provide the next word; “rising.”

The professor goes next: “under.”

And so on & so forth.

“Red sky rising under……”

It becomes apparent quickly, that it’s an exercise in frustration. The student – or whomever – starts the sentence, then gets frustrated that it is not going in the way she or he intended. Neither is able to control or manipulate the other. Both however, become aware of their spontaneous intention to do so. Both are trying to control what the other is saying, should say and will say. Both have to realize what they’re doing, how it feels when they can’t, and what it’s like to not have control.

The student had meant the next word to be “engine” to talk about a fire engine. The professor was thinking about glowing sunsets.” How far apart they are.

Try this with someone you know.  See how far you can get.  What kind of sentence do you two build? Does it make sense? How do you feel while co-constructing together?