The power of three

Background

Yesterday, Christoffer Bennet invited me to a round table discussion on the topic of “How to get the best out of Engineers while they work remotely“. It was a lovely discussion (I’ll add the link to the recording once it is up) but what does it have to do with this blog post, you might ask.

Well. In one question, around handling conflicts, I mentioned one of my favourite “exercises” when it comes to conflicts, or perhaps rather interpretations of data into, what we believe to be, information: The power of three. I thought I had blogged about it before, which I have, but it turns out I only brushed upon it shortly. So I thought I’d write a proper post about it – and here we are!

Picture of blue sky with three hot air baloons
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Communication is hard!

A lot of conflicts that people bring up to me in different settings are centered around interpretations of behaviour. Think something along the lines of Sam coming to us with “Alex is incredibly rude to me and totally disrespects my competence”.

First: To the person bringing this to me, this is 100% true. And I have to respect that and treat it as such. However – it is vague, non-actionable and most importantly: based on interpretations of behaviour instead of the actual behaviour. And solving this conflict often requires us to move past that interpretation.

You see, when your brain is telling you something is happening, which we see as a definite truth, is a lazy interpretation based on previous interactions. We instinctively go for the easiest solution and we are biased against looking at alternatives.

We are also incredibly bad at being specific about what concrete actions that form what we interpret as behaviour. Rude is not a behaviour. It is an interpretation of a set of things someone does that we will interpret av rude.

And you know what? Every single person has a different interpretation. Some we might agree on, some will differ a lot. We tend to think that everyone interprets the same thing as rude but we really don’t! There are cultural differences, differences due to our backgrounds, differences due to (as an example) being neurotypical or not, differences due to personality. The list is probably endless.

Communication is really hard. Really, really hard. And we must always keep in mind that what we hear and what someone says are not necessarily same thing. In every single thread of communication between two people there are multiple steps involved: What someone meant to convey, what they said, what you heard, what you interpreted the words as.

Katrina the tester has an excellent post on the Satir interaction model which is an great description of what happens when we communicate.

The power of three

So, getting back to Alex, the rude person. First of all, we need to dig into what actually happened. What did Alex actually do that was rude. What did they do that was disrespectful. Did they talk over you? Did they not say hi? Did they stand turned away from you? Did they laugh at your suggestions? Be concrete!

Once we get past this we can finally introduce the power of three!

Basically: If we make ourselves come up with (at least) three alternative interpretations to something, and prove and/or falsify those, we usually end up with a better understanding of the situation. This can be really hard but I promise – it gets easier with practise!

Let us look into this statement again:
“Alex is incredibly rude to me and totally disrespects my competence”

So we have a set of behaviours. Let us say what actually happened was that Alex said no to Sam’s suggestion to prioritise Ticket X and interrupted Sam at two points in the discussion.

  • Initial interpretation: Alex is rude and disrespects Sam’s competence.
  • Alternative interpretation 1: Alex had some very bad news that morning and was trying hard to not break down publicly.
  • Alternative interpretation 2: Alex was very nervous due to just getting a new role ans this was the first time they got to lead this meeting
  • Bonus alternative interpretation: Alex cut Sam short because this had been a repeated discussion over multiple meetings. The team had agreed on the prioritisation and Alex had tried to explain the reasons to Sam before but Sam kept bringing it up. (Ergo: perhaps Sam was the disrespectful one?)

Then you look into each alternative and try to decide if it is probable or not and how that shifts the interpretation of the behaviour.

If we agree that it is just as possible that Alex was just not themselves that day, maybe the solution to the conflict is as easy as Sam pulling Alex to the side, show concern due to the difference in behaviour and ask if something happened.

If we decide that the original interpretation was most likely, this is a repeated behaviour and only towards Sam, maybe one way forward is for Sam to ask for a meeting with Alex, tell them what behaviour they are experiencing from Alex and how that makes Sam feel ignored and disrespected. Using concrete behaviour, concrete results and actionable suggestions. (“When you do X, it makes me feel Y and I would like you to do Z in the future“).

If it seems like this is repeated behaviour and not only towards Sam, maybe this is actually the time for me to step in and talk to Alex and discuss their behaviour.

When doing this the first times, it can seem impossible to come up with alternative interpretations. We are so biased towards our “gut reaction”! It can help to allow some silly interpretations to unblock people (“Maybe they had a bad semla for breakfast and had bad stomach ache?”).

After a few tries it gets easier and you can start getting to reasonable alternatives and once you have established the exercise and there is trust – you might even get to the point where the person reflects upon their own role in the conflict (see bonus alternative).

Summary

Trying to come up with different interpretations to things does a number of cool things:

  • It forces us to pause, connecting our more logical “thinking mode” instead of our energy saving “react mode”.
  • If we try to understand the other person’s perspective, we get a little bit more invested in them, thus a little bit more willing to solve the conflict.
  • It makes us better at understanding ourselves.
  • You might actually realise you were wrong

I want to end this with my favourite quote by Gerald Weinberg:

If you can’t think of at least three things that might be wrong with your understanding of the problem, you don’t understand the problem

“Are your lights on” by Gerald M Weinberg and Donald C Gause
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