Chattering lizards

“The reason why so few people are agreeable in conversation is that each is thinking more about what he intends to say than others are saying”.
Francois de La Rochefoucauld

How many unproductive conversations do you hear people having on a daily basis?  How many of those do you get involved in?  What do you see going on that makes them unproductive?

I’m talking about situations where the parties involved in a dialogue actually do want the conversation to be effective, and the outcome to be productive. This is, after all, the primary way in which business, commerce, negotiation, consultation and relationships work.  

So why do so many conversations not work successfully?  Well, as you might expect, it is down to the way our brains work. When people raise issues, concerns or simply want to share a point of view with another person, they typically display a set of predictable behaviours which show up in a number of ways. The underlying motivations driving these behaviours can be summarised as:-

  • A need to maximise one’s own comfort / while minimising the other person’s discomfort
  • A desire to win / and not lose (i.e. to get your way)
  • A need to maintain control 

These needs ‘leak out’ into conversations in a variety of ways, but, most typically as:-

  • Leading Questions (designed to lead other people to get to the conclusions you have already arrived at)
  • Piling (loading points and/or questions on top of one another to emphasise your argument)
  • Over-advocacy (over-zealous control of the arguments without providing space for discussion)

When these strategies are being deployed by people, what is actually going on in their brains?  Chris Argyris, the father of Model I theories of behaviour, would argue that we are sanitising our thoughts and feelings, passing them through a Model I filter. But why do this?What evolutionary benefit could this have for us?

Well, Model I does make sense when viewed from a survival perspective in evolutionary timescales. It is a strategy that helps us avoid vulnerability and reduce risk.  It is a deeply defensive strategy, which may have had some value in our survival as a species, but it now gets in the way of us engaging in effective learning within conversation dialogues.

source: evilpinguperson

source: evilpinguperson

Of course, situations can arise when the filtering process gets switched off. When people do not get what they want from a conversation by using their Model I techniques, they may switch off the filtering and sanitisation of their words to the extent that they allow their emotions to be expressed in a ‘raw’ form. Depending on the respective personalities of the parties, this can result in direct engagement (at an emotional level) between the two people’s ‘limbic’ brains. If you have witnessed two people going at it, not listening to each other, speaking in increasingly raised voices over one another, with faces reddening, then you are witnessing a conversation between their ‘lizard’ brains.

So, is there a secret to effective and productive conversations?  Well, awareness of Model I and how our natural conversation de-railers operate is the best place to start. Once aware of what can go wrong, it is possible to build skills that overcome these pitfalls, and strike the necessary balance for an effective conversation to take place.  Emotions are necessary components in order to ensure people care, that attention is directed to the nub of the issue, and to make sure that consequences and stakes are named.  At the same time, the cortical areas of the brain must be engaged to provide the rationale, evidence and information that supports your points of view.  Training the cortex to support your emotions with evidence, rather than filter and sanitise your emotions to meet the selfish needs of your primordial self is hugely preferred strategy.

Further reading on this topic is available on this previous post published on this site. 


If you feel that you (or members of your team) would benefit from exploring ways to make substantial improvements to personal and collective effectiveness and productivity, please get in touch. Learning programmes are available that focus on developing the skills necessary to overcome the conversation de-railers of Model I.  Simply submit your contact details on the Contact Us page and I will be delighted to get in touch with you for an informal initial chat.




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