Do you ever find yourself in the middle of a conversation having a “Groundhog Day” moment, thinking that you’ve already had this conversation before?
As human beings, we’re good at patterns; they get created by the habits we have. Some habits are conscious (we know we’re doing them), while others are unconscious (we’re not aware of what we’re doing or the impact it’s having on others).
A Personal Example of a Stuck Pattern
When my daughter, Lauren, was very young, we had what I call a “Groundhog Day” conversation, and it would typically happen whenever we were getting ready to go somewhere that Lauren didn’t want to go.
Our conversation would generally go something like this:
Me: Do you have your shoes on?
Me: Well, we’re getting ready to leave in 10 minutes. You need to get your shoes on.
After about 5 minutes, I would come back to check whether Lauren had put her shoes on.
Me: Are your shoes on?
Me: Well, what have you been doing?
Lauren: I’m playing.
Me: Well, go get your shoes on.
And then here I am, getting ready to walk out the door, and I turn around to see there are still no shoes on her feet. This was our pattern of conversation every morning. We would go round and round like this.
In the structural pattern of this conversation, I was making a move and Lauren was making a follow by simply saying OK. But the reality is that she had no intention of putting her shoes on because it just wasn’t that important to her to do so. In this way, her action was a follow, but what was really happening was a covert oppose.
A Model for Noticing Patterns
Why is it important to notice patterns? David Kantor has studied conversational patterns in face-to-face communication for over 30 years, from which he developed the theory of Structural Dynamics. What emerged from his studies is a universal theory of face-to-face communications.
Through his research, Kantor found that 1) the structure of the conversation determines performance, and 2) there are two realities present in the room when people are speaking: one is visible and one invisible. This means that by determining the structure of the conversation, you can begin noticing the patterns in structural terms, rather than the emotional story that goes along with them. By reading the room from a structural perspective, you can actually pinpoint where you or your team may be stuck and shift the pattern to make the conversation more productive.
The Four Actions of Effective Conversation
Let’s focus on action modes, or what Kantor calls the Four Player Model. According to this model, all conversation between individuals can be coded into one of four actions:
- Move: A move initiates an idea, action or direction in communication for getting the conversation started. You can think of this as setting the flow of the conversation in a particular direction.
- Follow: A follow continues the direction (or flow) of the conversation, and in doing so, it supports a move. A follow does not always mean agreement; sometimes it can further inquire about a move.
- Oppose: An oppose challenges or disagrees with the idea, action or course of the discussion. It pushes back, corrects and/or offers an alternative perspective.
- Bystand: A bystand notices what’s happening and articulates that awareness (without moral judgment). It adds a neutral perspective for the good of the team, plus it helps the team see what’s happening and how they’re operating. You can also bystand yourself by telling the team how you’re feeling, what you’re curious about, or something else you see in yourself.
In order to be in an effective dialogue, all four actions must be present and active, meaning that someone is actively bringing those actions into the conversation. What happens when conversations become ineffective is that there is often one or more actions that are missing from the conversation.
Naming the Pattern
There are four common patterns that emerge in groups when one or more actions is missing. By being able to see and name a pattern, you’re giving the team information that allows them to be more aware of the pattern so they can take action to change it. A simple way to do this is to give a quick introduction of the four player model to your team, then name the pattern that you’re observing.
Now, let’s look at some common stuck patterns within teams.
Serial moves create lots of different energy in different directions. Part of this pattern is that many topics and ideas are placed on the table. Say today’s meeting is about the budget, but someone pipes in and mentions that next week’s picnic planning still isn’t resolved, and then someone else adds that the pothole out front should really be fixed before people show up for the company event.
With all of these topics on the table, there’s no real follow in the conversation. No topics have been closed out before new ones have been opened. This creates a lot of energy that can feel incomplete, like there is little progress being made and no forward momentum.
You’ll know this pattern has emerged when you leave a meeting and think, what did we actually do in there? Sure, all kinds of things were discussed, but you walked away without any action or a clear understanding of what decision was made.
With courteous compliance, there is a lot of follow (similar to groupthink). When someone who is really strong puts new topics on the table and offers up solutions, there’s often little resistance. Instead, the action is completed because teams follow a move put forward by someone.
This happens for a couple of different reasons. Some might value harmonious workplaces and think of their coworkers as a family (especially in family-run businesses). Therefore, they want to maintain the peace and keep the workplace happy.
Other companies have a real respect for hierarchy. When the leader has made a move, teams will go with it because nobody wants to challenge what the leader has to say. They follow along because they think it’s their job to do so, rather than to move or oppose. It could also mean that it’s not safe to offer opposing viewpoints in that system. Team members can become disempowered in this environment and believe that complying is part of their job, especially when there is lots of clear hierarchy.
Also known as advocacy, point-counterpoint means advocating for one’s point of view over someone else’s. The energy here can have an “I’m right, you’re wrong” feeling to it, or that someone’s playing Devil’s Advocate because they think it adds depth to the conversation.
A more effective way to bring opposition into the room is to find the 2% you can agree with if only to align with the value someone is speaking from and be specific about what is being opposed. This allows for a new move to be put on the table. It creates a structure that builds on the idea, instead of tearing it down.
Ultimately, the problem is this: groups need a clear and effective oppose in the conversation. The most helpful opposes are those that identify the specific things you are aligned with AND the specific things you are not in agreement with. Critique just for the sake of offering criticism without an offer of what to do instead isn’t helpful and may even result in the person being labeled as difficult, which prevents forward movement rather than promoting it.
Covert opposition emerges when you agree to something you really intend to oppose. Say someone asks you to go to lunch, and you don’t really want to go to lunch, but to be agreeable, you go anyway. Or you suggest something different, like going to get ice cream. Either way, you’re not admitting that you don’t want to go to lunch. Instead, you make another move, which is a covert way of opposing.
The challenge in communication happens when we’re not bringing all of the clear actions into the conversation. Is lunch really all that important? Probably not, but reviewing the new product strategy is. For whatever reason, if you don’t feel you can voice your opposition, you either follow or make another move. With both actions, you don’t clearly articulate what you dislike or oppose regarding the strategy.
There’s something missing from that conversation. For both individuals and teams, it’s important to create a space where people feel safe to disagree or bring candor into the conversation. (Basically, to voice their opinions without fear of getting fired.)
If there are unproductive patterns, you might notice these common experiences:
- You disagree with the direction the group has decided to go, but find that you’re holding back from saying something.
- You might think you offered your opinion, but you feel as if it were dismissed or not heard.
Changing the Pattern
Remember the story of my daughter and me? Once I caught sight of the structure of our pattern, I could take action. One of the things I did to change our pattern was to create a way for her to make a move that I could follow, which is more empowering than just being told to do something.
Here’s how our new conversation would go:
Me: What are you doing? (Move)
Lauren: Building a house out of legos. (Follow)
Me: Ah, I love how colorful it looks! (Follow)
Me: It’s 7:50 and your school bus will be here in 10 min. (Bystand) What do you need to do to finish getting ready? (Move)
Lauren: I need my backpack and shoes. (Follow) I’ll go get them and then come back to my legos if I have time. (Move)
Me: That sounds like a great idea! (Follow)
Today, Lauren has a “Get Ready to Leave” chart that she drew herself and it has check marks to track what’s been done and what’s left to do in order to be ready to leave the house.
I share this story because it’s a really simple example of how we individually bring actions to a conversation that can cause a pattern to form. As simple as it sounds this was a frustrating conversation for both of us each morning. Some patterns might be useful, while others may get in our way of getting to the real conversation. As soon as we identify patterns, our first thoughts can be about the other person and what they need to change. But since we can’t change others, the first place to start is with ourselves.
The point of this story wasn’t to change my daughter. Rather, the work for me was to change how I acted, the part that I contributed to our stuck pattern by changing the way I approached the conversation.
Leaders Go First
As a leader, be looking for patterns in the conversation that are no longer supporting the team and then look for a way to restore any missing actions to balance the team’s collective actions.
It’s more than just shifting the conversation in the moment. While that can be helpful, the deeper question is: what’s creating this pattern? If the opposition is absent from the team, what kind of environment has been created where oppose is not valued? How might you, as the leader, be making it unsafe to oppose? If new moves are made as a kind of covert opposition, then how can you inquire about a clear opposition? When you specifically ask for it, this makes it safer for people to voice.
Simply changing action in the room doesn’t make it sustainable. This only changes it for the moment. So how do you change it on an ongoing basis? Start by determining the action that’s missing most from the conversation, then either bring that action yourself or ask for it from the group.
Here’s the hard truth: you cannot do this for others until you have done it for yourself. With that in mind, here are some reflection questions to get you started:
- What’s the action that you use most often?
- How does it vary between different groups or in different situations?
- When might you overuse this action? Is it a stuck action for you? What might be underneath your stuck action?
- What’s one different action that you could bring to the situation that might shift your conversation?
Want more information? Check out Reading the Room: Group Dynamics for Coaches and Leaders by David Kantor.