In the midst of conflict it’s hard to get a fresh perspective about the situation or the other person. This simple question is excellent for tempering our certainty, engaging our curiosity, and sparking a shift in perspective when we need it most.
Minister, mediator, and mom Elizabeth Givler had been navigating some rough waters with her eldest son. He’d made poor decisions repeatedly and his behavior was taking its toll on her, her husband, and their family. They’d had so many difficult conversations about his choices.
Now it looked like they were about to have another one.
Her son’s new cell phone wasn’t working properly and he was frustrated. He said, “I knew I shouldn’t have bought this phone from that crooked wireless dealer.”
Irritation flooded Elizabeth almost instantly. Here, yet again, was an example of her son’s poor choices. Would he ever learn? Why on earth was he purchasing a cell phone from shady people?
Elizabeth loves her son fiercely and is deeply committed to good listening. So instead of launching into a lecture about another obviously poor choice he’d made, she pushed herself to check what he meant. She asked, “What do you mean?”
That was a smart move, because it turns out her son had not purchased the phone from a crooked wireless dealer.
He’d bought it from a Cricket Wireless dealer.
When we think we know
One of the trickiest moments in any conversation is that moment when we think we know — know why somebody did something, know what’s really going on, know their problem. That’s the moment we stop fully listening and start formulating a story in our head. The more committed we get to our story, the harder it is to create a shift in perspective.
When I’m teaching conflict resolution, I tell participants that the moment they think they know, it’s a good idea to ask themselves this question:
Elizabeth’s question to her son was sparked by this kind of thinking. Instead of running with her instinct, she created space to consider what else he might mean.
Questions like this trigger a mental reflex known as “instinctive elaboration,” temporarily tricking your brain into focusing on the question instead of whatever else it had been focused on. In short,
When a question is posed, it takes over the brain’s thought process. And when your brain is thinking about the answer to a question, it can’t contemplate anything else.David Hoffeld
A bevy of benefits
I love the question What else could this be? because it pushes me to consider reasons beyond the one driven by my ego and my certainty. When I ask myself this question, I inevitably discover alternative explanations that are as reasonable and viable as the one I had fallen in love with.
And I love this question because when I invite a client to answer it, their answers sow just a tiny seed of doubt about the explanation they’d originally fallen in love with. And from that seed of doubt, possibility can grow.
In the process of exploring answers to the question, we get benefits beyond a shift in perspective: Taking a breath and creating choice points. Re-engaging our thinking brain. De-escalation and calming.
So when you’re ticked off about the way someone treated you, give yourself the gift of fresh perspective by asking yourself, What else could this be?
When your spouse or teen does that thing that so frustrates you, and you’re so very sure you know why, ask yourself, What else could this be?
When an employee or a client is so trapped by their own certainty, help them find their own shift in perspective by asking, What else could this be?
My gratitude to Elizabeth Givler for permitting me to share this story, which she shared so lovingly and with great humor over lunch at a Pennsylvania mediation conference earlier this year.
Want more self-control during conflict? Try appealing to your future self
Conflict can rob you of two precious mental faculties useful for sorting things out: The ability to view the situation from the other person’s perspective and the ability to check your impulses. New research suggests that your future self can help you recapture those abilities.Read the article