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What a tsunami experience can teach us about having difficult conversations

by | Perspiration

In the last 50 years we have learned a great deal about how the mind works and the impact this can have on the way we behave every day. We refer to a lot of this research in our programme on difficult conversations, HardTalk. Sometimes these impacts are positive e.g. we respond super fast to a threat and that’s why we can catch a ball for example. But it can be negative – the reason we respond so fast is that we’re hard-wired to be looking for threats and this means we sometimes see them where they aren’t. And so our reaction isn’t appropriate and might even be unhelpful. And, of course, we might not even notice the real threat. When the way our minds tend to work has a negative impact on our ability to have HardTalk we call it a BrainDrain.

A great example of the BrainDrains at work outside of the workplace came to my attention recently when a client told me about his experience in the Sri Lankan tsunami. I spend a lot of time in Sri Lanka and so I’ve heard many of these stories. They are always fascinating, often tragic and sometimes seem to confirm the existence of a benevolent hand of fate. This story was different. It made me laugh.

Sri Lanka these days has a rapidly improving infrastructure and on the new roads the “Rules of the Road” are usually followed. Neither of these things were true in 2004 and it would have been a very strange decision for a tourist to drive oneself around the country, tackling the truly atrocious road surfaces and the myriad moving obstacles ranging from people to cows. Instead, many Sri Lankan men made (and make) a living driving people. Even a few years ago this could get complicated and fraught as the ability to know a location or even be able to drive well were not considered as important as the fact of owning a car and speaking at least a few (often very few) words of English. Again, this has improved and continues to improve rapidly in one of my favourite countries and one which has rebounded fabulously from the tsunami.

All of which explains why my client and his friend were in the back of a rickety car with a Sri Lankan driver behind the wheel on the morning after Christmas Day in 2004. They had left their hotel and were going towards the coast. In fact, unknowingly, they were driving towards one of the areas about to be struck by the tsunami which would bring so much devastation and death.

The driver could hear on the radio what was happening – the first rumours followed by confirmation and then the ever rising death toll but he couldn’t explain it to the two passengers who were enjoying the second day of their holiday in the beautiful island.

Unsurprisingly, he tried to stop the car but his passengers, wise to the ways of dodgy drivers everywhere, assumed that he was trying to show them a hotel/shop/restaurant owned by his friend/brother/cousin and insisted that he drive forward. And so he did. He continued to drive (slowly but inexorably) towards the now ravaged coast until a police blockade stopped the car. And even then, even as the car came to a stop and the relieved driver began to talk to the police, my client assumed their presence was due to Tamil Tiger activity. Despite knowing that the Tamil Tigers operated in an entirely different part of the country.
The enormity of what had happened only really sank in when the tourists agreed to the driver’s oft repeated request to be allowed to take them to a hotel in Colombo and turned on the TV. They immediately got on the next plane home!

Now, of course, this isn’t a HardTalk situation but it is a great example of how the mind can be at its least helpful when we most need it to be alert and functioning.

My client took some “Truths” i.e. some things that happened and interpreted these. His interpretation made perfect sense to him (of course they did – he was looking at the world through his eyes) and so he behaved as seemed appropriate to him.

He wasn’t curious about the other person’s point of view – assuming they’d let him know if it was important (for a variety of reasons people often don’t and we miss vital information).

And after deciding on a “Potential” or an interpretation of what he’d seen and heard my client then went on to see all further “Truths” through that same filter even if, as was the case for the police blockade, that was a struggle.

These are exactly some of the problems we face when having any kind of HardTalk. We interpret Truths and do so often unknowingly and then take these interpretations and use them to drive our behaviour. If we want to be in control of our results we need instead to take advantage of what we now know and learn more about how our minds tend to work. Only then can we take advantage of the good stuff and find strategies to deal with the less helpful.