What We Talk About When We Talk About Anything

Below The Surface

I discovered this very simple model of conversations a couple of months ago, and it’s proved useful in debugging some tricky interactions that have come up in coaching, so I thought I’d share it more widely.  It’s a simplified version of a model described in Fred Kofman’s Conscious Business (and h/t Gordon for pointing it out).

When we’re talking about anything, there is an “It” – the ostensible subject of the conversation:   the bug that needs fixing, or the code that needs writing, or the decision that needs making.  The “It” is usually fairly objective and pretty well described.  That’s what we think we’re talking about:

 JPEG image-FE82BD349F18-1The “It” however is only part of the conversation.  Below the “It” are all the other things that are happening.  We’re talking about whether we trust each other, how much we respect each other, what we think of each others’ opinions, characters and personalities.  We’re talking about ourselves, each other and the relationship between us, in other words.

And this part of the conversation can be both the largest piece of what’s being talked about, and the least visible, at least in terms of the words being used.

When a conversation starts to go off the rails, it’s time to start looking at the “You, Me, Us” part of what’s going on. JPEG image-128B9BE18A4B-1

A question as simple as “will the release be ready on Friday?” can be incredibly loaded if there are issues of trust and respect already boiling around:

Q: “will the release be ready on Friday”?   (the “It” is the release)

A (with heat): “yes, you know that.  we always make our deadlines” (now we’re talking about some history of trust, or micromanagement.   something other than just whether the release will be ready).

Some Approaches

Being aware of your own agenda.  Simply being clear what your own agenda in the conversation is can be extremely helpful.  If you agenda is “your team keeps missing deadlines”, well, you might want to have that conversation directly, rather than a conversation notionally about a deadline on Friday.    You’re going to have the “missed deadlines” conversation anyway, but implicitly, expressed in emotion rather than words.   Words are good.  Use them.

Be sharply focussed on the “It”. I was coaching a young entrepreneur a couple of weeks ago who was having frequent tricky conversations with her VP Engineering.  They needed to establish traction by a particular date for a new round of funding.  Working back from that date they needed  a release.  The conversations kept wandering around micro-management, role definitions and everything but the “It”.   In this case, the “It” was clear as day, and it was necessary to have a pretty direct and professional conversation about getting the “It” done.

Surface the “You, Me and Us” Part.  The contrary approach is to go deeper into the relationship.  Perhaps a particular design issue keeps coming up.   Or a discussion of a particular employee gets regularly heated for no apparent reason.   There’s something else going on.  Take the time, have the courage, to ask what.  Find out what is not being communicated, what is assumed, what is below the “It”.


As I’ve pointed out, this model is not an encouragement to make every conversation a heart to heart.  There are times when stuff just has to get done, and focussing on the “It” is the right thing to do.

Longer term, however, you need relationships to work.  Spend the time to figure out what’s happening below the surface, and do the work to make it good.


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