Good question: how to unblock stuck conversations

When discussions become stuck in a ‘death-spiral’ of point-counterpoint views it’s useful to have some techniques to unblock the discussion. One great technique is to shift the focus from telling people about your views and start asking questions to understand theirs.

Arm Wrestling

I was in a bid planning meeting at a large consultancy when the discussion started to enter a conversational death spiral. Manager A believed that there should be a project manager involved in the project whilst Manager B disagreed. The conversation shifted from a discussion to a disagreement – the difference in views hooked the participants into a verbal arm wrestle over who was right.

I realised that neither manager was asking any questions of the other. It was all “let me tell you again why I’m right”.

It was as if each person thought the other person was just failing to see what was obvious to them, so each was using an ineffective strategy of repeating their view again this time stronger and louder.

I fought back my impulse to ‘take sides’ and focus on what one side was missing. Instead I decided to ask a question to move the conversation forward:

Me: “[To Manager A] If we agreed to go with the idea of a project manager, could you say what that would look like to you? How much budget do you think would be needed?”

Manager A: “I think we’d need to use 5% of the budget”

Me: “[To Manager B] How does that sound to you? What issues would you see if 5% of the budget was used?”

Manager B: “I’d assumed it was more than that. If that’s all it would take then that works for me”

One well-placed question changed the nature of the discussion. The reduction in tension in the room was obvious.

My question was designed to take the other person “down their ladder [of inference]” and produce more specific observable data. By doing so it uncovered some assumptions about what exactly was involved.

Have you found switching from backing one side to asking questions about the other side’s ideas has helped unblock conversations? Share your views in the comments.

Benjamin Mitchell's Twitter ProfileHi, I’m Benjamin. I hope that you enjoyed the post. I’m a consultant and coach who helps IT teams and their managers consistently deliver the right software solutions. You can find out more about me and my services. Contact me for a conversation about your situation.

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2 responses to “Good question: how to unblock stuck conversations”

  1. Jason Yip (@jchyip) Avatar

    The detail definitely helps uncover mistaken assumptions about someone’s position.

    Writing the points on the whiteboard or on a flip chart help as well for various reasons:

    1. It changes the focus from talking at each other to looking at the artefact
    2. If structured correctly, the people will take turns describing their views because they know that their turn will come
    3. It explicitly highlights both common and different interests.

    1. benjaminmitchell Avatar

      I agree that a whiteboard or flipchart can have useful side effects. One that I’ve noticed recently is that simply by writing the topics being discussed, it can help people feel like their points have been heard and addressed. Not writing them up can lead to people continuing to “campaign” for them. By writing the topic down it allows it to be registered and put in the context of other topics discussed.
      I’m curious about the “tipping point” where the physical board stops being useful, so at the point where people stop taking turns, or where they forget to illustrate the difference between an interest and a position. Do you have any views or experience around this?

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