Monthly Archives: June 2016

Becoming Skilled: “Nexting”



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
  • Patronized
  • Embarrassed
  • Ignored
  • Talked over
  • Interrupted
  • Threatened
  • Left out
  • Offended
  • Frightened
  • Angry
  • Bored

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.”

Nexting Defined

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.

Two Principles

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.







Success Story: Chamberlain at Gettysburg


May 31, 2016


While some wicked problems involve one person struggling with a personal decision or crisis (“Should I go to medical school or join the Marines?”  ”Should I marry Fred or Robert?”  ”Should I travel the world for a year before beginning my Freshman term?”), most wicked problems  involve other people: partners or companions,  team members,  colleagues in an organization, or citizens of a society.  And what is required when people work on wicked problem is to talk, either to themselves, or to another person or a group of people.  Conversation is the sine qua non for effective work with wicked problems.  What do they talk about?  There is a helpful agenda,  one that begins with identifying the problem,  extracting it from the “mess,” naming and defining it, figuring out what would be the best actions to take, coming to agreement on an action plan, deciding who is to do what and when, and finally moving forward to implement the plan.

Talking about wicked problems is neither simple, quick nor easy. If the  process of finding, naming, defining and planning is to be  constructive – people actively participating by sharing their preferences, values, and ideas –  it is a given that along the way there will be conflict:  misunderstandings, disagreements and arguments.  In the best case, conflict can lead to greater understanding and better decisions;  in the worst case, to misunderstanding, frustration and resistance.  If not managed well, emotional exchanges can lead some people become so angry or alienated that they may become defensive, attack, refuse to participate or walk out. We all are familiar with this story.  And suddenly the problem owner, the team leader, and the group itself, are facing two problems instead of one: the original one they started with, and a new one that has emerged as a result of non-productive work.

The key to managing the tensions generated by working with wicked problems is to be always talking about them.  Talking about problems is a skill, one that can be learned, and, if success is expected, must be learned.

Leadership Challenges

When working on wicked problems in social or organization settings, effective leadership is required.  There are times when formal leadership is most important, and other times when informal leadership is most effective.  Either way, the first challenge for leaders working successfully with wicked problems is to be able to present a clear and compelling explanation of what the problem is and why it is important. The second challenge is to invite key people to join the cause, and then persuade them to sign on as part of the team.

John Chen Was Not Prepared

John Chen is admired in business circles as the man who answered the call to save Blackberry. Known as the “turnaround guy,” Chen is a big deal in American business.  He sits on two of the nation’s most prestigious boards of directors:  The Walt Disney Co. and Wells Fargo.  He is best known in Silicon Valley for reinvigorating an ailing company called Sybase and turning it into financial juggernaut.  With Chen in charge, Sybase achieved 55 consecutive quarters of profitability and an increase in market cap from $362 million to 5.8 billion.  In 2010, Sybase was acquired by SAP.

Things were not always so rosy for Chen.  Early in his career, while working as an engineer for Burroughs, he noticed that other people were being promoted who were, he believed, less qualified that he was.

When he went to his section chief to ask why, he was told that while he was very good at engineering, math and science,  he “was not very presentable.”

Thinking that what his boss meant was that he lacked presentation skills, he hired a local TV producer and his wife who ran a communication skills class.   They videotaped him speaking and, when he saw himself on the screen,  he was shocked.  ”It was horrible,” he said. “Everything that could go wrong, went wrong…I got dizzy watching myself… I wasn’t communicating. That’s what I learned.  It’s not about English.  Not about the pronunciation or the diction. It was about not being able to communicate.”

Joshua Chamberlain Was 

On May 24, 1863,  Colonel Joshua Chamberlain got word that he was receiving reinforcements.  Chamberlain had been in command of the 20th Regiment of Infantry, Maine Volunteers,  for all of four days, and he was acutely aware that at its present strength the regiment could not continue to be an effective fighting force for the Union in the Civil War.  A year earlier, when the 20th Maine had been commissioned, it mustered a thousand troops.  Now,  due to the cumulative attrition of injuries, death, desertion and straggling that resulted from having fought in five major engagements  including the disasters at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, it could count on only 358 men.

Joshua Chamberlain was an unlikely person to be the colonel of an infantry regiment.  After graduating from Bowdoin College in Maine, he had moved on to a three-year course of study at the Bangor Theological Seminary, then returned to Bowdoin as a professor, teaching rhetoric, oratory, and modern languages.  When the Civil War began in April of 1861, he decided that he wanted to serve his country and so asked for a leave of absence to join the army.  His request was turned down by the faculty at Bowdoin.  To discourage him even further, they sent a message to the governor that Chamberlain “is no fighter, but only a mild-manner common student.”  They had no idea that Chamberlain would go on to become among the most decorated and beloved of all the Union generals.  At end of the war, he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery at Little Round Top during the battle of Gettysburg.

But in 1862, Chamberlain had a problem.  He had been denied permission to leave Bowdoin and become a soldier.  Demonstrating the adaptability and creativity that he was to show in battle throughout the war, he applied instead for a two-year leave to travel to Europe to further his studies, and once it was granted, he headed straight for Augusta,  the state capital, and volunteered his services.  The governor, impressed with his demeanor, offered to make him a colonel and give him a regiment, but Chamberlain said no, that since he knew nothing about being a soldier, he would start a little lower and learn the business first.  His promotion to colonel came a year later when the current colonel of the 20th was promoted to Brigadier General.

On May 24, 1863,  Chamberlain should have been pleased about the news that 120 men were being sent to him from another Maine regiment, the 2nd.  But he was shocked to learn that the men had mutinied and refused to serve and so were being sent to Chamberlain not as reinforcements but as mutineers to be disciplined.  Rather than being sent support to strengthen the regiment, the military commanders had sent him a huge, difficult and what seemed to be an insurmountable problem.

The mutineers  arrived under armed guard and in a sorry state – tired, dirty,  dispirited, angry, and very hungry.  The army had tried to break their will by withholding food for three days.    They also came with orders from the commander of the Fifth Corps, General George G. Meade, soon to be named commander of all of the Union troops at Gettysburg,  that Chamberlain was to “make them do their duty or shoot them down the moment they refused.”  Mutiny during wartime was a capital offense and Chamberlain was expected either to make them fight or shoot them.

Chamberlain knew at once that he was not going to shoot them.  ”These are Maine men” he said, and he knew that if they were shot he could never live in Maine again.  He had to do something, but what?  The army was getting ready to move on.  He was left with two choices:  convince them to join with the soldiers of the 20th Maine and return to the war, or take them with him under armed guard, something that would have only compounded his problems.

The first thing he did was to feed them.  Then he had the guards removed, sending them a powerful signal that they were no longer prisoners, but free men who had a serious problem, as did he.  And then he did what he knew best how to do:  He spoke to them.  He was, after all, a professor of rhetoric.

Chamberlain’s words on that day were not recorded.  What follows is the recreation of his message to the men taken from the movie Gettysburg:

“I don’t know what I can do [about your concerns.]  I’ll do what I can.  I’ll look into it as soon as possible.  But there’s nothing I can do today.  We’re moving out in a few minutes and we’ll be marching all day and we may be in a big fight…

I’ve been told that if you don’t come I can shoot you.  Well, you know I won’t do that.  Not Maine men…

Here’s the situation.  I’ve been ordered to take you along, and that’s what I’m going to do.  Under guard if necessary.  But you can have your rifles if you want them.  The whole Reb army is up the road a ways waiting for us and this is no time for an argument like this:  We sure can use you.  We’re down below half strength and we need you, there’s no doubt about that…

This Regiment was formed last fall, back in Maine…Some of us volunteered to fight for the Union.  Some came in mainly because we were bored at home and this looked like it might be fun.  Some came because we were ashamed not to.  Many of us came…because it was the right thing to do…

This is a different kind of war.  If you look at history you’ll see that men fight for pay, or women, or some other kind of loot.  They fight for land, or because a king makes them, or just because they happen to like killing.  But we’re here for something new…This hasn’t happened much in the history of the world.  We’re an army going out to set other men free…

Here you can be something.  Here’s a place to build a home.  It isn’t the land – there’s always more land.  It’s the idea that we all have value, you and me, we’re worth something more than the dirt…What we’re fighting for is each other…

I think if we lose this fight the war will be over.  So, if you choose to come with us I’ll be personally grateful.”

While  don’t really know what Chamberlain actually said, what we do know is that when he finished 114 of the 120 men picked up their rifles and joined Chamberlain as the 20th Maine marched toward Gettysburg.

And in one of those incredible coincidences that no fiction writer would ever dare to invent, the 2oth Maine, now reinforced by the 116 men from the 2nd, was placed on the very end of the Union line,  just below a small hill that was known as Little Round Top.  And it was the defense of that position by the 20th Maine against tremendous odds  that, according to many of the most reputable historians of the Civil War,  disaster at Gettysburg was narrowly averted.  And, again according to these historians, if the Union Army had lost the battle of Gettysburg, the road to Washington was open for Robert E. Lee to attack.  And if he would have captured Washington, it was likely that the North would have lost the war.  Unbelievable as it may seem, a strong case can be made that because Chamberlain was able to persuade those 116 men to join with him, thereby making the 20th Maine just barely strong enough to withstand the repeated assaults from the Confederate troops,  the North went on to win the war.

And John Chen?

And what about John Chen?  He worked and worked at improving his communication skills.  When the company realized that he was doing this on his own, and paying for it out of his pocket, they were not only impressed but noticed that he was becoming more skillful in communicating with others. They reimbursed him for his expenses and promoted him.  Eventually, after two or three years, he ended up as plant manager.  And, as they say, the rest is history.