Two Conversations are Worse than One

If you think this looks bad, you should let adults try…

Two coworkers are having a disagreement about team strategy. Let’s say it has something to do with whether to allocate limited resources toward in-house development or to pay external suppliers for development. It’s a perfectly polite conversation: everyone is acting like an adult and no one is calling the other an idiot for suggesting such things. Let’s even assume that cognitive biases are not playing a huge role in preventing the colleagues from reaching common ground (an impossible assumption, but bear with me).

Still, they strongly disagree about the options and they can’t seem to make progress toward understanding the other’s point. After their conversation ends, they each will leave feeling like they made the good points and that their co-worker was incorrect. No progress was made on the team’s decision and two people are now slightly more convinced that their colleague, though respectable, just doesn’t understand things. Sound familiar?

This happens often in the real world, and normally it’s not so polite or mature. The real world is a hazy, fuzzy place of multi-layered concepts and perspectives that ignores our best attempts at creating binaries or clarity. Decisions or team strategy options are rarely clear and directly comparable. Often these conversations are frustrating events that sow distrust and spread unconscious beliefs that your coworker “doesn’t get it.” You may feel like giving up or that it is not worth it to bother having this conversation with your coworker. This is the case of two people talking to each other while having two different conversations.

We can label this “multiple conversation disorder.” It is a dysfunction of human interaction where two or more individuals working and speaking together fail to actually talk about the same thing without being aware of it. What does that mean?

Figure A is what we (both) think is happening. Figure B is a better representation of reality.

When the colleagues disagree about whether to put resources toward internal development or toward outsourced development, they assume that the real conversation focuses on which of those two options is better. But things are more complicated. The first colleague argues for in-house development on the surface, while underneath she’s really emphasizing the importance of nurturing team creativity and building internal IP. These beliefs shape her argument. The second employee pushes for external development, but doesn’t bring up his successful past experiences with outsourcing or the incentives to rapidly complete the development which drives his reasoning.

The disagreement is not really about the decision (though sure, on one level it is). It is about the complex experiences and beliefs each colleague possesses that create different systems for decision-making and prevent them from addressing the topic one-to-one. Uh…what?

Think about people’s beliefs as the tip of an iceberg. We think certain things based on a complicated chain of information-processing going on below our consciousness. We experience, we form judgments and interpretations about those experiences, our interpretations in turn affect how we observe new experiences, which changes the information we collect, which is influenced by our interpretations — repeat and repeat. Now realize that this is different for every single person: those experiences, interpretations, theories of the world, and selection biases are infinitely different.

Hidden complexity is elegantly portrayed in the “ladder of inference,” originally drafted by Peter Senge. The “ladder” visualizes how individuals move through steps of interpretation & assumption based on evidence that they filter unconsciously. (This image is artfully illustrated by the folks at The Systems Thinker who also put out loads of interesting information regarding the hidden levels of complexity in organizations.)

Like pairs of miniature icebergs bumping into each other, we usually fail to see the scope of “stuff” happening under the surface and guiding our decisions. We often miss what’s under the surface in our own minds and we DEFINITELY miss the icebergs in other people. Very simple things combine to form very complex and confusing systems of interaction. The colleagues think that the other just can’t understand what they mean, but really their icebergs are preventing them from having the same conversation. Hidden layers of experience, assumption, interpretation, and values bump into different sets of underwater layers while the colleagues argue about specific decisions on the surface. Figure C shows what this looks like.


These layers also become increasingly varied and “bumpy” when working in teams with diverse backgrounds, cultures, and mindsets. All of these hidden “bumps” make it harder to participate in shared conversations, particularly when we are not very clear about the layers under the surface. This has real impact on how well teams work together and solve problems.

If people have completely bumpy conversations, then complex problems do not get resolved, ambiguity prospers, and diverse perspectives cause frustration rather than innovation. Borrowing from Bruce Tuckman’s famous model on team performance, teams will stay in the “storming” mode for far longer than necessary if they don’t find ways to better understand each other’s’ icebergs.

Consider how these problems of perpetual storming can grow throughout an entire company when you include the hundreds of individual and group “icebergs” that collide without awareness. “Multiple conversation disorder” then becomes a chronic but unrecognized problem.

My father once told me, “In business you can agree with someone or disagree with someone, that’s easy. The most important thing is to make sure you are talking about the same damn thing.” Unfortunately, because of the hidden complexity involved in human interaction and ever-present cognitive biases, we are often having separate conversations.

Think about your own experiences. How often have you been talking to someone and realized during or after that you were really just having two one-way conversations?

This means that problems go unresolved, communication remains unsatisfying, and creative collaboration fails to grow. Two conversations are NOT better than one.

As you navigate your next team meeting or engage in conversation with coworkers, think about the important icebergs moving under the surface. Maneuvering through the complexities of our icebergs is a tricky business that requires a lot of effort to repeatedly clarify things. Be on the lookout for how these unseen layers of experience and values cause yourself and others to talk past each other.

The first step in solving any problem is to become aware of it and accept that it exists. Like my father also often says, denial ain’t just a river in Egypt. But it is full of icebergs…

Next time I’ll look into ways to help us talk about “the same damn thing.”

Originally published at on March 2, 2019.

A wanderer, a water-drinker, a wastrel, and [something pithy]