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OCI #23: Anatomy of an Issue
Part 2 of a series on effective communication...building the foundation for effective understanding, exploration, and problem-solving
This is the second post in a series on communicating in ways that create deeper connection and understanding. The first post describes four types of “talk” and provides background on the Core Communication model I’m drawing on. This post introduces the idea of “issues” and the types of information we use to understand and describe them.
An issue is anything that concerns you or someone else in your organization and requires decision or action. Issues typically represent a gap between what you anticipate or seek (what could be or should be) and what is being experienced (what is). Issues can arise from many places, including:
Business—anything related to the work of the organization, including equipment, processes, money, training, technology, profit & loss, etc.
Individual—anything related to ourselves or another person, including behavior, energy, expectations, health, responsibility, skills, values, etc.
Relationships—anything related to interactions between people, including agreement/disagreement, similarity/difference, inclusion/exclusion, boundaries, trust, etc.
Groups—anything related the functioning of a team, committee, family, or other unit, including productivity, purpose, structure, climate, leadership, etc.
Issues are always emerging as a normal part of organizational movement. They require varying amounts of time and energy to resolve, and tend to become more complex when they involve relationships and groups. When we resolve them effectively, they contribute to personal, group, and organizational growth.
When issues are not resolved, they can continue to cycle and can become entrenched problems. Increased rigidity and polarization make resolution more difficult. This means that the early identification and effective resolution of issues is one of the most important uses of our communication skills.
Take a few moments to think about what is going on in your life and work these days. What are some of the business, individual, relationship, and group concerns that come to mind? Are any of them lingering issues that have become ongoing problems?
What examples come to mind of issues that have arisen and been effectively resolved? How did these situations contribute to growth for you and/or others?
The Structure of Issues
The full picture of an issue includes various types of information. Recognizing these and knowing how to enrich your understanding of them can help you expand your awareness of the issues you are working with. These types of information are:
Sensory Data—internal and external data perceived through our physical senses
Thoughts—the meanings we make of sensory data
Feelings—the emotions and biological responses that arise within us
Wants—our desires, wishes, and intentions for ourselves and others
Actions—our nonverbal and verbal behaviors and statements
You can use this model to explore what you and others are experiencing. This information is the starting point for exploring and resolving issues. I’ll share an approach to using this information in mapping and working through issues in a future post.
We are continually scanning our environment for information. Some of what we find is based on time, place, context, and surroundings. We also find input from various media, printed materials, and other things we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch.
Perhaps our richest source of information is other human beings. We take in their facial expressions, movement, words, silence, posture, gestures, and even smells. Their energy levels, physical closeness or distance, words and nonverbal communications, and other elements of their presence create one part of our situation awareness.
We gather data from inside ourselves as well, often outside of our conscious awareness. Muscle tension, physical ease or pain, fatigue, excitement, signals from our heart, gut, and proprioception add to the picture we are building.
In addition to what we are experiencing in the moment, we can recall past situations and create a rich set of mental images to help us describe our observations and awareness.
Take a few minutes to do a sensory awareness scan. What are you seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching? Can you think back to a time when you used your sensory awareness of another individual to learn something important about them or about a situation?
We are constantly interpreting and making meaning of the world, converting experiences and sensory input into thoughts. These can include beliefs (what we hold to be true, useful, and valuable), interpretations (the meaning we make and stories we tell ourselves about what is going on), expectations (what we anticipate or think will happen), and possibilities (going beyond the data to imagine what the future might bring).
Our thoughts are very powerful forces and influences on our decisions and actions. It’s important to recognize that they represent a translation of sensory data and other inputs into our own interpretations of the world. Others may see and hear the same things and reach very different conclusions. Our thinking may be clear, with results that are logical and consistent with the evidence, or cloudy, with results that are distorted or biased. A wide range of heuristics (shortcuts in our thinking) can be helpful or harmful influences on the quality of our thoughts. For example, people often unconsciously pay more attention to data that is consistent with their beliefs than they do to inconsistent information. This is known as the confirmation bias.
Think about the day and week ahead of you. What are some of the expectations you have about what is likely to happen? Can you go back and think about how those expectations came to be in place? Are they based on prior experiences? New information? How likely are they to be accurate?
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Emotions are rooted in physiology. Changes in heart rate, blood flow, hormones, and other physical processes, and body cues such as muscle tension and sensations in the gut, are associated with various feelings. Researchers have identified universal emotions that appear to be fairly consistent across cultures—these include happiness, sadness, anger, fear, disgust, and surprise. A number of people have created much more complex vocabularies of emotions displayed in the form of emotion wheels. They include many nuanced terms, including pride, relief, resentment, excitement, caution, disappointment, pleasure, etc. The more comprehensive your emotional vocabulary, the more accurately you can perceive and describe your own and others’ feelings.
To a large extent, feelings are predictable results of experience. For example, if you expect something to happen and it doesn't, you may feel disrupted, disappointed, and frustrated. If something unexpectedly good happens, you may feel surprised, thrilled, or pleased. If you experience something as highly threatening, you are likely to feel fear, terror, or alarm. While many people try to deny or suppress feelings they would prefer not to have, a more useful strategy is to identify and acknowledge feelings as important indicators of what is going on in a situation. This information can be very helpful in making good decisions and resolving conflicts. A more effective way to reduce the level of feelings you don’t want is to address the underlying situation.
Separating Thoughts and Feelings
It’s easy to confuse thoughts and feelings. These are two very different types of information. We often say “I feel…” when it would be more accurate to say “I think…” because we are referencing a belief or interpretation about what is happening rather than an emotion that we are experiencing. This is particularly true when discussing thoughts that are likely to be connected with strong feelings. For example, “I feel competent…” may be more accurately described as “I believe I’m competent. I feel confident and pleased.” “I feel rejected…” may be recast as “I think I’m being rejected. I feel disappointed and discouraged.” Some common thoughts that are often labeled as emotions include intimidated, unappreciated, important, pressured, respected, and insulted.
Think back over the past few days. What are some of the emotions you have felt? Can you identify some of the things that were happening that were reflected in those emotions? Are there any of the emotions you identified that could be more accurately labeled as thoughts?
We are motivated by desires, wishes, and intentions. These imply movement toward or away from something or someone, and provide direction without commitment to action. We have wants for ourselves, and we can also have them for others. The best solutions to addressing issues are ones that address the wants of all the parts of the system, so exploring wants is an important starting point for connection and collaboration.
Here are some examples of wants. They can be general or specific, weak or strong, aligned or fragmented.
To be—liked, successful, healthy, relaxed, wise
To do—finish a project, have dinner, get revenge, collaborate with others
To have—a friend, a new phone, more time
Wants For Versus From Others
When we think about others, we often focus on what we want from them. We can also have wants for them. When we acknowledge and understand others’ interests, we are able to understand what they want and, out of a sense of support and caring for them, want for them what they want for themselves. The test, of course, is whether the others agree that your wants for them match what they actually want. It’s easy to want for others what you think they should want, or what you think would be good for them. That’s not the same thing. You may not agree with the wants that others have, but it’s important to understand them, acknowledge them, and, where possible, affirm them.
What are some of the motivations that are influencing your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors at this time? What do you want? As you think about other important people in your life, what do you know about their wants? What do you want for them?
The last piece of exploring an issue is identifying actions. These can be external and observable—the things you do and say that others can see—but sometimes are internal and less visible (for example: reflecting, listening, trusting, believing, and imagining). It’s important to consider actions in the:
Past—what have you or others previously said and done? This can include achievements, activities, failures, statements, commitments, etc. Taking accountability for past actions helps build trust.
Present—what are you currently saying and doing? This can include a wide range of verbal, physical, and mental activities. This category also encompasses things like accepting/rejecting, proposing, suggesting, and offering. You demonstrate responsibility when you initiate action related to an issue you are working through.
Future—what will you do at some specific time in the future? This can include a wide range of things, including plans, promises, and specific things you commit to saying and doing. This creates a promise and an accountability. It is different from wanting, intending, or hoping to do something.
It’s also important to identify lack of actions—what wasn’t said or done in the past, isn’t being said or done in the present, or won’t be said or done in the future.
Think about a personal objective you are working toward. What past actions have you taken? What are you doing in the present? What future action commitments have you made to yourself or to others?
The Information Wheel
This graphic summarizes the five zones of information to consider about an issue you want to explore.
You can also use it as a source of early warning signals—when an internal or external alarm goes off in one of these areas, it may indicate that an issue is arising that needs to be addressed. These can include:
Unexpected or surprising sensory data
Unclear, confusing, or disturbing thoughts
Unfulfilling or conflicting wants
Inappropriate or ineffective actions or inactions
Try using this tool to explore an issue for yourself. You can cover the zones in any order, and move back and forth among them. Ask yourself:
What have I seen? Heard? Noticed in my body?
What do I think?
What are my emotions?
What are my wants for myself? For others?
What have I been doing? What will I do?
Be honest with yourself—accept what you find as your starting point for dealing with the issue. If you notice any empty zones, see what you can do to fill them in. If you notice pieces that don’t fit together comfortably, see if there are ways to reexamine sensory data, alter your thinking, shift your wants, or change your behavior to bring things into alignment. Keep expanding your awareness of the issue, and see if you can get to a point where things begin to fit together and lead to a small, constructive next step.
Issues occur within systems. A system is a collection of parts that interact with each other to create a whole. Because I am focused on organizational change, my primary attention is on organizational systems. When we seek to increase the effectiveness of organizational systems, we operate within a network of perspectives and interests that need to be integrated and balanced, including:
Organization—its mission, projects, tasks, plans, and desired results.
Ourselves—our own goals, values, and feelings.
Members—the concerns of co-workers, managers, departments, and other key players.
Stakeholders—the larger group of interested parties including customers, shareholders, families, communities, etc.
Each part of the system has important information and experience, and all must function well together to create the best results. Alignment within the system increases the likelihood of good long-term solutions.
The ways we communicate can count or discount each of these interests. For example, we discount ourselves when we disregard our own instincts and awareness, and count ourselves when we stand up for ourselves and take action. We discount others when we ignore their interests or seek to control them, and count others when we deeply listen, build agreements, and collaborate with them.
Think of an initiative you are part of—how would you summarize the key elements of the system that need to be considered in creating good solutions?
Can you think of times when others have counted or discounted you? How has that affected your engagement and satisfaction?
How are you working to engage and align the various parts of the system you are working in? Are there any groups that need to be more fully counted for optimal results?
I find this model very helpful for deepening my understanding of issues that arise in my personal world and in organizational settings. In this post I’ve focused primarily on exploring your own perspective on an issue. The framework is also very helpful for deeply communicating and collaborating with others. There are a couple of additional building blocks to put in place before we get to the process of jointly working through issues with others. I’ll unpack those in future posts. Here are a few thoughts I’ll leave you with:
Organizational change is full of interesting issues to explore. There are typically multiple elements of the system that need to be engaged, each with their own goals, wants, and perspectives.
Take your time to let your understanding of issues deepen and unfold. New feelings, wants, and thoughts are likely to emerge.
Noticing absences is good information when exploring an issue…paying attention to what you don’t want, what you’re not thinking or feeling, what you didn’t do. This is often helpful to me when I experience myself as wanting something, but find myself not taking the actions needed to fulfill the want. From there I can explore sensory data, thoughts, and feelings to see what else might be going on. A conflicting want? A limiting thought? Some “gut-level” data that says I need to rethink my goals?
Sometimes the issue you start with is not the real one. You may discover a deeper or more central concern.
Not all issues require immediate action. Sometimes you may need additional reflection time, and sometimes understanding alone is the solution.
In future posts I will share a few additional parts of this model related to listening and working through issues with others.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this installment of Organizational Change Intersections. See you in two weeks!
It’s a big deal to me to honor intellectual property rights. I want to give credit to Sherod Miller, Ph.D., the primary author of the model I’m sharing here. I was certified as an instructor in his material a number of years ago; in seeking ways to share this wisdom with my organizational change colleagues, I have not found a concise summary of the model to refer people to. To the best of my knowledge, the model is currently primarily taught in the context of a Couple Communication program, which is not designed for general organizational settings. It does appear that one can purchase a Core Communication kit, designed to be used in the “general” version of the course, on the site (and there are a few used copies on Amazon). What I’m presenting here is my own summary and interpretation of the material, and is not designed to be a substitute for a full training program.