June 19, 2016
Question: Given that face-to-face communication is the most important activity in working successfully with wicked problems at all levels – in relationships, teams, organizations, and society – what is the most important communication skill to insure positive results?
Answer: The most important communication skill for working with wicked problems is Nexting.
Conversations Are Bedrock
“Conversation is sociological bedrock” writes Emanuel A. Schegloff. It is “the absolute foundation or base for everything humans do as social beings,” adds author John Stewart in his book Bridges Not Walls. If conversation is the fundamental building block for everything we do together, then becoming skillful in talking with others about important problems clearly must be mastered in order to enjoy a satisfying and productive life.
The ability to engage in positive, supportive, and productive conversations is the sine qua non for working on problems, especially when the problems are wicked ones. When solving tame, or technical problems, conversations with colleagues, collaborators, or administrators are important: in selecting a problem to investigate, in choosing or creating procedures and methods, during the gathering and analysis of data, and especially when sharing results with others.
While work on tame problems can often move ahead with limited or periodic conversations, the same is not true for wicked ones. When people believe that they are confronting a wicked problem, then continuous conversations are required in order for a specific problem to emerge from a”mess” and evolve into an actionable problem. No conversation, no problem. In the absence of effective conversations, what exists are widely differing perceptions, concerns, fears and frustrations with no effective mechanism to bring them to the table and begin to understand what they mean. It is only through conversations about these issues and situations with key members in relationships, teams, and organizations that problem-finding and problem-defining can begin and the important processes of working with wicked problems can move forward.
This dilemma has its roots in the reality that no single person can ever determine by her or himself what is a wicked problem. One person’s perception of what is happening is always incomplete, inadequate and biased. When the process of taking action in order to make things better begins and ends in the mind of a single individual as an idea, concern, or frustration, nothing will happen. If that individual, convinced that he or she understands the problem, knows what should be done about it, and then moves to action, what will happen is predictable: there will be new troubles ahead.
With Wicked Problems, Conversations are Crucial
In summary, then, in order to arrive at an appropriate definition of a wicked problem and then to decide what should be done about it, conversations with others are required. It is only by talking to one another that people can come to understand the nature of the problem they are facing and what should be, and can be, done about it. This is usually not a comfortable or easy experience. When people become involved in serious conversations about problems, they are required to leave the relatively safe refuge of their own ideas and open themselves up to consider the opinions, preferences, and perceptions of others. These will not only be different from their own, but often are threatening or even heretical. (“It pains me to say this to you Fred, but I am convinced that you are big part of the mess we’re in right now!”)
Any hope of forward movement is dependent upon an open door to an energetic, vigorous, open, free-wheeling exchange of ideas, preferences and perceptions. If the people in the room – a couple, members of a team, or members of a group representing an organization or institution – are committed to getting beyond superficial explanations and discussing the undiscussables, then they must say what they think and listen to others when they do the same. If they are able to do this, then the chances of something important happening increases. If they can’t, then not only will there be little progress, but new problems will emerge.
Constructive Conversations About Important Issues Are Rare
Unfortunately, when there are tough issues on the table, constructive conversations that result in increased understanding, commitment and progress are the exception rather than the rule. The problem lies in the differences between “Small Talk” and “Big Talk.”
For most people “Small Talk” is easy.: “What did you think of the movie?” ”Which do you prefer, lasagna or spaghetti?” ”Have you read any good novels lately?” But “Big Talk” is a different challenge altogether. Taking on important issues successfully when there are significant risks involved requires skill, patience, courage, and understanding. And unfortunately in most serious conversations about “Big Issues,” these are exactly the attributes and skills that are in short supply. As a result, important conversations about important issues may start out well, but frequently get derailed and slide off into dangerous territory.
What can go wrong? Let me count the ways. When conversations are tense, conflictual, and controversial – that is, important – and the required skills are absent or inoperative, people frequently feel:
- Lectured to
- Talked over
- Left out
When people experience these feelings during a conversation, two unhelpful events often follow: Some “leave the table, ” become silent, and refuse to engage or participate (often making surreptitious glances at a watch); or the conversation escalates from a polite exchange of differences and disagreements to shouting, labeling and ad hominem attacks.
Texting, Sexting, and Nexting
What can help? Here is where”Nexting” skills are needed.
Most of us have heard of Texting, some are familiar with Sexting, but Nexting? For almost all of us, this is a new term. Yet for avoiding many of the problems in conversations, and remedying others when they occur, its importance cannot be overstated.
Texting is one of the new words that has entered our vocabulary as a result of the introduction of smart phone technologies. Many of us send texts to one another as a way of staying in touch, and, if the media reports can be trusted, some even send thousands each day.
Sexting has also entered our language. Sexting is the unwise and unfortunate practice of some young people sending nude pictures of themselves to each other with their smart phones. For some young people sexting has become something that is daring, shocking and sexy all at the same time. Most of us, however, find it to be a regrettable use of the technology. And, as it turns out, sexting brings its own set of problems. Sending pictures of nude children under the age of 18 is a Federal crime, something that some of the teenagers involved in sexting did not think about until it was too late.
And Nexting? It’s a safe bet that few people understand what it means and even fewer are skilled in doing it. People who have mastered the skill of “nexting” are few and far between, a situation that goes far in explaining why important conversations are so difficult. “Nexting,” writes John Stewart, author of the best-selling communication skills text Bridges Not Walls, “is the single most important communication skill.”
What is Nexting? During an important conversation it is being sufficiently aware and skillful to do “next” whatever is required to keep the conversation on track and moving in a positive direction. ”By nexting,” writes Stewart, ”I mean doing something helpful next, responding fruitfully to what’s just happened, [then taking the next] step in the communication process.”
When people becomes skillful at nexting, they are able to make huge differences in ensuring that a problem-oriented conversation continues to move in a constructive direction rather that deteriorating into a destructive one.
Three Levels of Skill In Crucial Conversations
In difficult conversations people typically bring one of three levels of skill: (1) no one involved has any idea what behaviors would be helpful in making the conversation successful; (2) all parties are skillful and aware; or (3) one person is more skillful and aware that the other or others. It is this last situation – an asymmetrical level of skill – that nexting becomes the key to successful outcomes.
In the first situation – no one has an idea what to do in order for things to go well – what inevitably follows is a disaster: Misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and retaliatory attacks are ubiquitous. In the second – and rare situation – where everyone is skillful, constructive work can be expected with a reasonable effort. And in the third, where one person is skillful and the others are not, it is incumbent upon that person – especially when things begin to go south – to guide the conversation toward reaching successful and productive outcomes by appropriately and skillfully using nexting skills.
When it comes to the skills of nexting, there are two critical principles to keep in mind: First, there are many different nexting variations that can help keep conversations moving in constructive directions; and second, employing these nexting variation is always situational. Whichever one is to be used, and when it is used, depends upon what is happening in the exchange. Is the conversation moving in an appropriate direction? Then encouragement and support will help keep it moving forward (“This conversation is really helpful to me!”). Is it beginning to veer off track and deteriorate into a game, a debate, a competition, or an all-out war? Then a nexting intervention is needed to bring the conversation back into positive territory. (I’m getting uncomfortable with where we’re going with this. Let’s take a moment and check if this is where we want to go.”)
Six Requirements for Nexting
These two principles – there are many different skills can be used for nexting, and when and how to use them is always situational – present those in the conversation with the challenge of being skillful and timely in knowing what to do and when to do it. In order to achieve this, there are six requirements that can lead to success:
- First, being clear about one’s purposes and goals for the conversation. ”When we end this conversation, where do I want to end up?”
- Second, participating actively in the conversation by expressing one’s ideas, perceptions, preferences, and concerns.
- Third, listening actively and non-critically to the others in order to understand what are their goals and concerns.
- Fourth, monitoring one’s emotional reactions to what is happening.
- Fifth, paying careful attention to the verbal and non-verbal responses and reactions of others.
- Sixth, nexting: When things seem to be moving in the wrong direction, then intervening in a skillful and timely way with one’s “next” comment or observation.
Can a person do six things at once? At first glance it may seem to be impossible to keep in mind one’s goals and objectives, participate, listen to others, monitor one’s emotional responses, pay attention the others’ verbal and non-verbal behavior, and then, when appropriate, intervene in order to rescue the conversation from escalating into a brawl. Yet it is not only possible, but there many people who are able to consistently manage them all. When one is in a conversation with a skilled “nexter” the differences in tone, substance and results are remarkable.
Yet this is not to say that it is easy. Becoming aware of what effective conversations consist of, and then learning the required skills in order make them happen regularly is a major challenge.
Becoming a “Nexter”
As I stated at the start, conversations are at the center of any effective work with wicked problems: No conversation, no problems. When people are able and willing to engage in constructive conversations, then work with difficult problems can begin and continue toward consensus and, eventually to the planning and the executing of an action plan.
And yet most of us face the frustrating predicament that many of our important conversations do not go well. Rather, they founder and fail, leaving the situation even worse than before. An unpleasant reality is that most of us are not as skillful with difficult conversations as we need to be. Yet if one person in the conversation has the awareness and the action skills to be a “nexter,” the chances of moving toward important goals increase substantially. When conversations are difficult, people who can “next” successfully have a unique resource to offer. They possess the interpersonal and organizational equivalent of a “pearl of great price.” While having the skills to participate actively in important conversations is valuable, the ability to go beyond participation and nudge the conversation away from deterioration or escalation and toward more constructive exchange is priceless. Becoming a “nexter” is a worthy goal of those who are interested is adding value to relationships and to careers.
In the essays that follow, I will name and describe in greater detail a number of the most important nexting skills.