What Might You Say?

After some extended discussion of a case, when I asked students what they might actually say in the situation, all the insights that the class had developed in the discussion completely evaporated.

F.J. Roethlisberger, The Elusive Phenomena

Roethlisberger was a pioneer in the field of human relations and organizational behavior.  He was writing about his experience teaching students at Harvard Business School in the 1950’s and ‘60’s.  The phenomenon he pointed to, that insights evaporated when he asked what one might actually say, is timeless.  You can see for yourself by asking his question whenever people are talking about how to handle a difficult interpersonal situation.

There is a vast difference between talking about how to handle a situation and doing it, even when the doing is virtual, as in role play.  Producing what you might say draws on habits of speech and interaction and on assumptions you do not even know you are making until they are revealed by what comes out of your mouth.

There are risks in asking the question.   It puts people on the spot.  They may feel embarrassed or chagrined when they are unable to produce the approach they have been advocating, or when the way they produce it turns out to be problematic.  They may get defensive.

You exacerbate these risks if you ask the question from a mindset of “That won’t work” or “I bet you can’t produce it.” Your mindset will express itself in your tone, your choice of words, or what else you say, and will trigger the other person.  You mitigate the risks when you speak from a mindset of mutual learning, curiosity, and intent to help.

When you say what you might say, you create much richer and more directly observable data for assessing the impact on the other when you say that.  Listeners can hear meanings in what you say that you had not realized you would be communicating.  They can identify intentions and attitudes that are likely to be attributed to you as the speaker of those words. They can imagine how the other might respond.  This enables them to give you more useful feedback so that you can design more effective ways of handling the situation.

It is a powerful move, both for coaching others and for soliciting useful input from others. Try it out.

Posted by Robert Putnam

Robert W. Putnam is a founding partner of Action Design, a consulting and education firm specializing in organizational learning and leadership development.

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