It is the first week of April. Philippine president Duterte leads the Time100 online poll for Time’s most influential people for 2016 even as international scrutiny is drawn to the country’s drug campaign. Elsewhere in the news, Moody’s last week released its two-year forecast for the Philippines, projecting an over 6 percent economic growth in spite of what they called “political noise.” In social media, sniping and sometimes worse continues between critics and supporters of the current administration.

The current adversarial nature of many conversations and discussions concerning the state of the nation and national governance is a stark example of what happens when communication is derailed. 


In business as well as in personal life, this ability to keep conversations from deteriorating is an important skill. Too often, those involved in a conversation forget the real objective of the discussion and fall into unproductive behavior.  

Perhaps the most difficult discussions are those seeking to find a consensus. Too often, individuals come to these conversations having already made up their minds. In these cases, there is no real meeting of the minds as each person grasp only at the arguments supporting their point of view. The conversation becomes a battle rather than a search for commonality. When positions harden and the topic is emotionally fraught (often the case in politics or religion, for example), then no real conversation happens and words become missiles seeking to destroy rather than bricks and mortar seeking to build. 

Sarah Green Carmichael, in a 2010 article concerning difficult conversations for the Harvard Business Review, outlined 9 common mistakes. Many of the mistakes she mentions have to do with managing mindset and reactions. They include such things as allowing others to push our buttons or falling into old patterns and scripts and hence not providing room for real conversation. 

At the heart of these mistakes are two stark realities. First, for the most part, most people don’t enjoy conflict. Hence, we will try to find ways to avoid the conflict, either by shutting down or seeking to find that one single big offensive that will finish the conversation. Unfortunately, this deployment of that one single strike, much like the atomic bomb, often has the adverse effect of creating more conflict. Second, human beings tend not to like being wrong or losing or being criticized. Hence, we all develop a complex system of mechanisms for self-preservation. Some of these mechanisms are so hardwired, we lose control of them and they become automatic responses (our red buttons, for example). In the literature on emotional intelligence, we refer to these moments when we allow our self-protective reptile brain to take over our logical forebrain as amygdala attacks (Note to reader: Seriously! Look it up.).

Keeping on track

I found two of Carmichael’s comments particularly helpful. 

One of them is a lesson often used in sessions on mindfulness and effective thinking: It is important not to lose sight of the goal. Everything that we do or say in a conversation must bring us closer to the goal. In fact, this is one of the methods for preventing ourselves from falling into the trap of behaving irrationally. Take a step back and ask yourself a few questions: What am I trying to accomplish here? If I do what I want to right now (say, bring up an old mistake), will that lead me closer to the goal? What other consequences might I trigger?

I remember one particularly memorable conversation I had with a close friend. We were both very young and said friend was relating stories concerning the inappropriate, often unpleasant, and sometimes very personal, comments of a co-worker. As is often the case, the unpleasant co-worker actually had multiple skeletons in the closet and my friend was considering exposing those skeletons the next time said co-worker said something inappropriate. I took one long breath and asked: and what would you accomplish by doing that? The answer: “It would make me feel better.” After a few heartbeats, a second, more considered answer: “And I would be making a potentially powerful, spiteful enemy.” 

And here is the crux of the matter, when conversations go the wrong way, it is often at the intersection of two situations: we react emotionally and we lose track of our goal. 

The third factor

A third factor typically comes into play when we choose the wrong approach and this factor is relevant even when no conflict or emotions are at play. This third factor has to do with the logic that we bring to understanding the particular problem at hand. When we are crafting the potential solution to a problem, we are quick to ask the question: Will this allow us to accomplish the intended consequence? The other question we need to ask is this: What other unintended consequences might we trigger as a result of our planned solution?

An even deeper potential logical pitfall is this: Are we even solving the correct problem? One item in Carmichael’s list is relevant to this topic: oversimplifying the problem.  

Of course, we all know that there is a natural temptation to find ways to just get the problem over with. Unfortunately, oversimplifying the problem means we actually never manage to solve the problem. An even more complex and dangerous situation exists when we end up framing the problem in a manner that supports an internal bias. In these cases, the conversational conflict becomes even more toxic: disagreement as to what the problem even is.

In the literature concerning collaborative management of change, especially what the academic literature calls wicked decisions (complex decisions involving multiple factors, multiple stakeholders and multiple decision-makers), the first step to finding a solution is to agree on an analysis of the problem. An important part of the approach for these kinds of problems is to ensure that each key sector is not only heard from but is an actual constructive and active participant in the process, not only of finding a solution, but actually in defining and understanding the problem.

In a 2013 Forbes piece, John Hall presents many tips for having meaningful conversations. In a nutshell, most of his tips can be distilled into a very few: do your homework, listen and remember key points, find ways to truly engage and appreciate the other person’s point of view, find ways to make sure all participants receive and add value.

And that, finally, after all, is what productive conversations are about. It’s not a contest. It’s not about who is right or who is wrong. It’s about finding ways to build something that makes sense and considers everyone. There will never be perfection but there will always be a way to move forward rather than back

Readers can email Maya at [email protected]  Or visit her site at  For academic publications, Maya uses her full name, Maria Elena Baltazar Herrera.

Topics: Maya Baltazar Herrera , Focus , Time100 online poll , Sarah Green Carmichael
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