Thursday, December 19, 2013

Why Smart People End Up in the Same Frustrating Loops (part 2)

"You always cut me off when I'm speaking," Jack yells.
"Well, if you'd get to the point, I wouldn't be able to," Jill yells back.
"How can I when you never listen?'
"I never listen? I never listen?

 The dialogue above may sound familiar. Jack and Jill are both smart, successful, motivated adults in a serious relationship. But they frequently seem to be stuck in arguments like the above. In the last post, we looked at the reasons smart people often end up in the same cyclical problems. Why do smart people play out dumb problems?

To recap, smart people are excellent at navigating external variables, checklists, systems with clear objectives and feedback. But in more ambiguous problems, smart people often become victim of their own success by not evaluating the larger picture--the larger objective of the project--and their place in creating additional stress/complications. And because smart people are often very driven to success, the threat of failure prompts them to search for people and circumstances to blame, robbing them of the chance to take part in some of the most powerful learning.

But moving forward, how can an individual move beyond the cycle of problem, failure avoidance, frustration (the saga of Jack and Jill, for instance)? Argyris suggests applying the tools of strategic analysis. The process:

1. Define the problem/desired outcome
2. Collect valid data;
3. Careful analysis
4. Test inferences (educated guesses) and conclusions.

In other words, instead of the defensive witch hunt after realizing there is a problem, the individual pauses and defines the problem and the preferred outcome, parses the situation to find important details, carefully selects the most relevant data and discover which information is most important to explain the problem, and, finally, asks questions of how things could have been different or alternative solutions/responses. These alternative responses are tested against the data to see if the  conclusions hold up.

How might this look when applied to an interpersonal relationship? Back to Jack and Jill's argument:

As Jack's voice is raising in ever higher decibels, Jill, in a moment of frustration can;t take it anymore, realizing they have had this type of argument before. She curtly excuses herself, huffing and indignant. A few minutes later, however, she's calmed down. Jack, robbed of his sparring partner, calms as well. When they come back together, Jill asks if they can talk about what happened, not to rehash, but to find what went wrong so as to avoid this type of miscommunication in the future.

How they could apply the steps of strategic analysis to this cycle of argument:
1. Both participants would need to agree that the larger goal is that their relationship flow smoothly and that they would like to fight less. The goal is to prevent fighting, not to find the culprit.
2. To find relevant details, they have to both agree that they will talk about what made them most angry, when they went off the rails, but to not let that feeling reanimate so as to take over the conversation again.
3. Each would have to calmly ask of themselves and the other what responses particular statements caused in the other. Here, each partner will need to be reminded that this process can only work with calm, honest interaction. And each partner must be willing to listen without anger, pity, or other destructive responses.

Possible questions for this phase:
What if I had said this instead?
What would have been another way to approach that point?
I was trying to communicate X, but I'm not sure the point got across; how could I have said that to best get the point across?
How can I best identify--or ask you later--what you really want?

By defining the problem, looking for the triggers, asking honest questions, and exploring alternatives with the goal of preventing future problems, the individuals arrest the cycle. Through calm reflection, they are also drawn closer, and by admitting their own culpability in the miscommunication, they are learning.

Two final thoughts:

Though this strategic analysis cannot necessarily save your relationship, or a fragile ego, it can save your relationship and yourself from repeating the same dumb mistakes over and over again.

And, as Christina H. at Cracked put it:


... there's not such a clean division between "the smart" and "the dumb," since intelligence is so multidimensional. There's a more obvious division between people who can look at their own flaws and people who can only look at others'. Ironically, the latter group, whether smart or dumb to begin with, are never going to get any smarter.

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