Why Conversations Break Down: Episode 2, Time Travel
We are each not merely traveling our unique life’s path; in many ways, we are the path itself.
Throughout our lives, we blaze a uniquely individual trail. It is sometimes a smooth downslope that we travel with ease and grace. Other times it is an arduous climb, testing our limits and rewarding us with summits of success when we persevere. And of course, there is the difficult terrain, those stretches of sharp and slippery rock, harsh and unforgiving places that we must navigate in the cold and dark, the ones that leave us bruised and weary.
We do not simply leave these landscapes behind once they drop out of sight at our backs. We embody them. They become part of us.
Our most important conversations occur at the intersections of two or more such trails, where our paths cross with those of others in dialogue. Importantly, what we must consider at such intersections is thus not just the single point on the map, but the entirety of all the roads leading there, the cumulative history of all those involved.
This complicates matters, to say the least.
Compounding the complexity is our unique ability to travel back in time. Often, though we stand physically at this crossroads of conversation in the present, mentally we have traveled back to some stretch of trail from our past.
Another Source of Breakdown
Last week, we discussed how conversations breakdown due to our tendency for “impliferance,” a word I made up to describe our problematic habit of conflating imply and infer. We blame other people for implying things that are upsetting to us, when, in fact, we don’t really know what, if anything, they intended to imply. Rather, it is us who inferred that upsetting story, a story that is often just plain wrong.
This week, we are exploring how conversations break down when we time travel.
The Perils of Time Travel
Are you talking to the person in front of you right now? Of course, we always think we are. But is it possible that you are really talking to a past version of this person, the version with whom you had an unpleasant experience when your paths last crossed?
Or maybe you’re really talking to that other difficult person or situation that somehow reminds you of the person in front of you now?
Or maybe it's just the circumstances that are similar and take you out of the present?
The problem is not so much that we remember those unpleasant experiences. Rather, it is that we time travel back to that distant point on the trail and engage from that place automatically and unconsciously. We react to things that happened then, but are not happening now.
We speak to the person we encountered back then, and fail to consider that the person standing in front of us now covered a lot of ground in the intervening interval. In a way, they are not really the same person at all.
Just like you, they have blazed a few miles of trail since then. The person here in the present might be different, but not if we are seeing only the one from the past.
We have many good reasons for this sort of time travel. Most involve an instinctive, and sometimes helpful, instinct for self-preservation. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice…
Yet, our tendency to operate from the past gets us in trouble. It almost always introduces negative memories into a neutral or even positive present, predisposing the conversation to conflict and preventing anything new and better from emerging. We don’t want this, so how can we avoid it?
Back to the Present
Assuming your DeLorean's flux capacitor is still waiting for its 1.21 gigawatt* charge, here are a couple other options for getting yourself back to the present:
1. Get Back in Your Body
Your mind can time travel, but your body cannot. Mentally, you might have teleported ten years backward on the trail of life, but physically you will always be right there at the conversational intersection.
Weird terms like “somatic awareness” might sound a bit squishy for work, but really there is nothing squishy about it. It just means noticing what is happening in your physical body (your soma).
Sitting at the conference room table, your mind might travel back to that time a terrible boss belittled you in front of everyone in a room that seemed a lot like this one, but if you can feel your feet on the ground, your butt in the chair, or your breath going in and out, it will bring you back to the here and now and help you avoid the snarky comment that turns the conversation hostile.
2. Forgive Your Fellow Time Travelers Upfront
When someone says something that raises your hackles, consider that they are also the sum of their personal history, and they might be reacting to something far back on the trail they have traveled. Very often, that thing they are reacting to is not you. So forgive them upfront. Let it go, and often, that simple act will bring them back to the present, too.
As Always, Step One is to Notice
We cannot separate ourselves from the path that got us here. It is part of us. But we can become more aware of where our mind is on the trail, noticing when we have time traveled backwards, and learning to return ourselves to a more productive present.
Next week, in our final installment, we'll be covering zero-sum dialogue, when unconsciously slip from a desire to understand to a desire to win.
In the meantime, schedule an executive coaching session with us. Helping people return to the present moment is one of our specialities. And finally, if you found this helpful, pass it along to someone else who might benefit.
Until next week,
* As an engineer, I feel compelled to tell you that 1.21 gigawatts is 1.62 million horsepower, and yes, a lightning bolt could deliver that much power.
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