You have different experiences than I do. Yes, this is completely obvious. And yet, somehow when people like you and I are faced with a complex situation, we are initially surprised (if not amazed or stunned) that everyone doesn’t see it the same way or instantly agree on a course of action. Why would that happen when we have such vastly different experiences? It wouldn’t. It couldn’t. Even my five cats have completely different reactions to most situations.
We also have different real and imagined interests in various outcomes. If I am rich and would benefit from a tax break for the wealthy, I might be more inclined to think it’s a good idea than if I stood to lose. For some people, self-interest plays the largest part. For some, it plays the only role. But for others, it plays very little role. They are more motivated by something else; e.g., what they think of as “fair” or “best for economic growth” or “most likely to reduce crime.”
You and I won’t even go to the grocery store and pick out the same box of cereal (at least, not usually). Why on earth would be expect to agree on everything when we have different experiences and different interests? We even have different priorities about what even counts as our interest. For example, I look at the past primarily as a vast storehouse of things to learn from. I appreciate that change takes time and that people are able to adapt to change at different rates. But I don’t really care much about preserving a law, custom, or method “for its own sake” or “just because we’ve done it that way” unless there is a current or future benefit or unless the change is likely to produce an avalanche of unwanted side-effects. For instance, I’m happy to try out new computer technologies, but more reluctant to try out some new drug.
On the other hand, I care a great deal about how the future turns out for my family, my nation, my species and for life on the planet. You, on the other hand, may love all things retro and think of the future as something that is completely unknowable and that any action you take in order to make X occur is just as likely to make ~X occur. You might care about only your own country, or your own species, or your nation. Or, you might care a lot about some specific other species such as whales or polar bears.
So, if we agreed on every issue, it would be astounding. You and I are going to differ, at least on some issues. You and your neighbor are also going to disagree on some issues. You and your boss will disagree; you and your spouse will disagree; you and your son will disagree; you and your daughter will disagree. That isn’t a bad thing. It is an inevitable thing. It has always happened; is happening; will always happen.
There nothing new in disagreement. Humanity, however, seems lately to have forgotten most of the ways of handling disagreements and how to accomplish intelligent issue resolution.
Currently, many of the popular social media are not, at least in the current way they are being used, very productive in creating issue resolution. They may be quite useful in energizing people who feel the same way you do about at issue. Perhaps we can create something to do a better job of issue resolution electronically. For now, social media proved useful in the Arab Spring and the Ukrainian ouster of Putin’s puppet but have proven not so useful in resolving where America wants to go as a country.
Face to face negotiations are a better venue in which to manage issue resolution. Let us delve into why a bit later. But first, let’s review some of the general strategies for issue resolution. In the most general case, I want X and you want Y. Now, what do we do about it?
I, for one, do not expect everyone to agree with me on every issue. I am however, more than a little disappointed that our current society does not seem so mature at issue resolution as my friends and I were as pre-teens.
When I attended Junior High School, our neighborhood featured many brand new homes in various stages of construction. This afforded opportunities to hang out indoors without prying parental eyes. One of the things we did was play penny-ante poker. Different people preferred different poker variations. So, what did we do? Did we argue all day and go home mad? No, we played “dealer’s choice.” In many card games, one person, “the dealer,” shuffles the cards. Typically, someone else “cuts” the cards at a random place. Then, the dealer deals out the cards. The next round, the deal passes and it’s someone else’s turn to deal and to specify which game is to be played for that round. Some of my compatriots liked naming lots of “wild cards.” Others didn’t. Personally, I liked five card draw, nothing wild and seven card stud. We sometimes tried to convince the dealer to pick something other than their first choice. But we never quit because of their choice or tried to “beat them up” until they picked the same thing we would. We knew that preserving the integrity of the game was better than wrecking the game in an ill-advised attempt to get our own way.
For the same reason, we didn’t cheat. I can assure you that if someone cheated more than once, he would have been ostracized and not invited to play again. We would not have tolerated cheaters or bullies. And, if that person lied about their behavior, it wouldn’t have helped their case at all. Taking turns is one general strategy for dealing with disagreements. Of course, it cannot be applied to everything. It makes sense to let the dealer chose the game for a hand of cards. It makes no sense to have one administration build bridges and have the next administration tear them down and then have the next administration build them up again.
When we played pick-up baseball, basketball or American football or soccer, the two “captains” typically took turns choosing players. We chose the captains through a voice vote. One of the captains chose first from the remaining players. Which captain? Sometimes we flipped a coin, or saw which captain could roll a baseball closest to a bat that was about twenty feet away. Most often, the captains played a game of taking turns placing their hands on a bat. Whoever got to the “top” won first choice. So, as a general rule, on some occasions, luck or skill determined a small issue resolution.
Later in high school, I joined a “debate team.” We prepared for these debates by structuring arguments and also by doing research to gather facts, stories, arguments, statistics. We wrote perhaps 100-200 hundred cards and organized them. It never occurred to me to fill one of these cards with lies; e.g., exaggerated statistics. I never thought about why we didn’t make up statistics to prove our points. It simply wasn’t done. So far as I know, we all recognized at some level that this would be cheating and that cheating would spoil the game for everyone. What possible honor would their be in a ribbon, medal or trophy that won by cheating? I suppose, if asked, I might have also pointed out that being caught making up facts, quotes, or statistics would be humiliating. I suspect our teacher coaches would have also extracted some penalty beyond that, but I never had one of my debate team mates even suggest such ploys.
These debates were run by rules. No-one in these debates used ad hominem arguments or belittled their opponents. We were sixteen years old. By the way, we debated “real” topics. One topic I recall was federal aid to education. Another topic involved free trade agreements among the Americas. The topics were non-trivial. The debates followed rules of turns and timing as well as conventions about what was an acceptable line of argument. Debaters cited facts; used metaphors. We argued as persuasively as we could. But I never despised or even disliked my opponents. If someone came up with a novel clever argument, I would be appreciative just as I am today if my tennis opponent hits a particularly good shot. Before the debate began, we introduced ourselves and shook hands. Did I mention that we were sixteen years old? At sixteen, my brain was not fully mature, and my hormones were pouring into my veins. I could literally get angry in one second. Yet, we always debated with civility and sportsmanship. How on earth have we come to a place where national leaders behave more like children than sixteen year old debaters or twelve year old boys playing baseball or poker?
It wasn’t just me. By the age of 16, everyone I went to school with knew about resolving issues by luck, by skill, by taking turns, and by debate according to rules and based on facts.
Two additional methods we were fully aware of were physical power plays and decision by authority. On very rare occasions, and generally at a much younger age, a kid might try to get their own way by physical intimidation. This worked for them in the short term, but never in the long run. Bullies were quickly ostracized. Of course, parents and teachers were authority figures and sometimes they would insist on resolving an issue “their way” simply because they were the authority. This method seems a close kin to bullying. On some occasions, we would protest the decision of a teacher, administrator, referee or debate judge. If we pushed that too far, we could get ejected from the class or the game. That was rare. In some instances, I managed to change an authority’s mind. Most of them were invested more in doing the right thing and making the right decision than in simply demonstrating their superior position. We expected them to be fair even though we didn’t always agree with their decisions.
I recall on one occasion that we won a debate. As my teammate and I were leaving the room after the debate was over, the debate judge continued to argue with the other team over the subject matter of the debate! The evident bias of our judge ruined the victory retroactively. It ruined the experience for the losers but it also ruined the experience for my teammate and me.
It astounds me that many Americans seem to have forgotten even these simple methods of issue resolution that I knew as a teenager. Since then, I’ve learned four additional techniques that probably each deserve their own blog post to describe in some detail. I will list them briefly before returning to catalogue some of the reasons why issue resolution is generally best done face to face.
The first method I first discovered when I got married the first time in a Quaker meeting. The branch of Quaker that I married into did not vote to resolve disagreements. They talked about it until there was a consensus! I was incredulous to learn of this. I asked, “What do you do when people don’t agree?” The answer was, “We keep talking.” The style of these Quaker meetings was for people to simply stand up and say things that came to mind. It was definitely not a structured debate. In fact, sometimes a person’s comments left no clue as to whether they were “pro” or “con” on an issue under discussion. Many years later, I discovered the work of the quantum physicist David Bohm on “Dialogue” which has a very similar flavor. He does not claim to have invented “Dialogue.” Instead, he says that many so-called primitive tribes including Native Americans, naturally engage in the practice. Basically, one person says something. Everyone listens with respect. Everyone then reflects silently on what was said. If they now have something to contribute, they do. It doesn’t have to be an argument “pro” or “con.” It can simply be an observation or question.
The next method for issue resolution comes from the work of Christopher Alexander and his colleagues who developed a “Pattern Language” for building. A Pattern is the named repeated outline of a solution to a common problem. A Pattern Language is a lattice of inter-related patterns that covers at least a large part of a domain. Initially, Christopher Alexander and his colleagues developed a Pattern Language that covered city planning, public buildings, and homes. Each pattern has a number of parts, including a listing of opposing forces. The opposing forces tend to push solutions in various and often opposite directions. The Pattern that forms the solution involves either a useful point of compromise, or more wonderfully, a transcendent solution to the (apparently) opposing forces.
While at the NYNEX AI lab, I commissioned someone to teach a three day workshop based on the Harvard Negotiation project. The basic concept of this approach is to negotiate according to your needs and wants rather than your positions. In a simple example, two sisters each want the only orange they have. Eventually, they decide to split the orange in half as the only fair compromise. As it turned out, however, one of the sisters really wanted the peel in order to use the zest for a cake while the other sister wanted to eat the flesh of the orange. Rather than settle for half of their actual desires, they could have each had it all — if only they had honestly talked about what they needed and why. For more information, see the link below.
Still more recently, while working at IBM Research on knowledge management, I helped start a monthly meeting of people from several companies who were all interested in knowledge management. One of the participants, I believe from United Technologies, told us about TRIZ. TRIZ was developed by a Russian, Genrich Altshuller. He was a Russian inventor who wrote a letter to Stalin suggesting it was important for Russia to become more creative. For what was seen as an implied criticism, he was sent to prison where he connected with other very intelligent and highly educated Russians who had also been sent to Siberian prison camps. By talking with experts in a wide variety of domains, he developed a general way of solving engineering problems. The method gives general ways of resolving apparently opposing demands. For example, an auto axle needs to be light to reduce gas consumption and materials costs so this would lead to an axle of minimum diameter. But an auto axle also needs to be strong. Having your axle break when you hit a bump at 60 miles per hour can ruin your day. So, you want the axle to be of maximum diameter for strength. The lowest level “solution” is a linear compromise. You want the axle to be sufficiently thin to be economical but not so thin as to be easily breakable. A more “transcendent” solution is to make the axle hollow. Such an axle is nearly as strong as a solid one but much lighter. A still more “transcendent” solution is to lose the axle altogether. Four independently operating wheels are too tricky for most humans to handle, but I suspect that when autos are all self-driving, we will eventually see axle-less autos as well. Under the proper algorithmic control, four independent wheels could be lighter and safer.
All of these methods are worth considering in more depth. However, let’s return to the notion that Issue Resolution is best done face to face. Is that true? If so, why? What is it about face to face communication that makes it better for Issue Resolution?
During my career in IT and telecommunications, the bandwidth for remote communications has increased tremendously. I recall as a young child that my mother was tremendously excited to see the coronation of Elizabeth II live on TV. The black and white picture was extremely grainy and the content, at least to a young child was snoringly boring. We watch the live high definition TV events of today broadcast in much more fidelity and color. Likewise, teleconferencing often includes picture phone and/or screen sharing. An engineering view suggests that we can make teleconferencing work as well as face to face meetings by increasing bandwidth until it is indistinguishable from face to face.
To a psychologist like me, however, simply increasing bandwidth will never be enough to make teleconferencing equivalent to face to face meetings. Let me illustrate by example. For two years, in the early 1980’s, I worked in IBM’s Office of the Chief Scientist. My main objective was to get the IBM company to pay more attention to the usability of its products. In this regard, I visited the majority of IBM development labs, programming centers, and scientific centers. By traveling there, I could not only see people but experience what they were experiencing. At one meeting, for instance, a Danish doctor came to a meeting of European IBM executives and product managers. He began his talk by placing a metal box on the table in front of him and turning a switch. The box emitted a horrible noise! He began talking and showing slides and his audience immediately objected and asked that the box be turned off. He calmly said, “Oh, just ignore it” and he continued with his talk. The protests grew more vehement. He remained calm. “Oh, that? The noise? Just ignore it. That’s what you ask your users to do. This is only 60 Decibels, the same as your acceptable and actual noise levels on your new terminals.” Had this meeting been a teleconference, this demonstration would have been far less effective. On a teleconference, many would have simply turned down the volume or even turned to other tasks until the noise ceased. The participants would not have been able to sense the tension in the room or seen the dawning comprehension on the faces of their colleagues.
Face to face meetings allow the possibility of doing each other direct, immediate physical harm. Of course, most of the time, we don’t actually do that, but the fact that we could cause harm but refrain, builds trust. Remote participants cannot punch you. So, the fact that they don’t punch you doesn’t build trust. It just reinforces your understanding of physical reality.
Beyond the meetings themselves, traveling to a remote location allows you to understand at a much deeper level that you are in another location. You experience the food, the physical context, the restrooms, the transportation system, the language, at least to some extent, the culture. For instance, at the lab I visited in Sweden, some people brought their kids to work. Every person in that lab had a window. It is one thing to read about these things and a completely different thing to experience it first hand. I began learning even before arriving at the airport in Stockholm. I sat next to a Swede on the plane and, in the normal course of events (neither of us having an iPhone at the time), he told me interesting and important details about their culture. For instance, no matter how much land someone owned, travelers were allowed on that land up to about 200 yards of the owner’s house. They were allowed to forage and to use fallen wood as firewood. The people at the top of companies were only paid about 20 times what the lowest paid person was paid.
In another case, I drove the spectacular and extremely scary road from Nice to the IBM lab in La Gaud. Once there, I spoke to their “usability” person. He showed me their “usability lab.” It became clear upon my questioning that this was essentially a “Potemkin Village” usability lab. It had never been used or even completely set up. It was a ruse to show that they were in compliance with orders from headquarters. After being unable to answer a number of my pointed questions, the “usability person” admitted to the scam as well as his own lack of qualification to run a usability lab. He could have easily fooled me via teleconference.
One of the potentially important factors about face to face meetings is the high degree of time synchrony. It turns out that people can sense and interrupt each other and move in rhythm much more easily with essentially zero lag. There is also always the possibility of shared experiences beyond what is necessary for business. For example, when I travelled for IBM to Zurich in the summer of 2000 to meet about knowledge management with ABB group, there happened to be a solar eclipse “visible” from Zurich. Unfortunately, the day was quite overcast. Nonetheless, our host provided everyone at the meeting with safe viewing equipment and we all left the meeting to view the eclipse. All we saw were clouds. After a few minutes, however, the clouds parted and we all got a good look (through the smoked glasses) of the eclipse for a few minutes before resuming the meeting indoors. If you and I are in the same physical space, there is a chance, however remote, that I might save your life, you might save mine, or we might work together to save someone else. It seldom happens but it could happen. This means that you and I might have to depend on each other. We might have to trust each other. This possibility may well make us more prone to be civil.
If you think back on your personal experience, you will probably come to a similar conclusions. Some things are best done face to face, regardless of bandwidth. However, you don’t have to rely on your own experience or mine. There is an entire empirical literature on this. Here are some good places to start.
My wife Wendy and I were among the co-organizers of a CHI workshop on “cross-cultural issues in HCI” that took place in Monterey in 1992. At that workshop, we had participants from many countries. We began the workshop by having all the participants cooperate to physically rearrange the space so that we were in a large circle rather than in rows (as though listening to a lecture).
Another CHI Workshop begins with a physical task
So, we began working together on something physical that we were all familiar with (but not something we were expert in). What happened is that we sensed that the other people were pretty much like us. On the other hand, if your first encounter is with words, you will immediately notice an accent and in many cases, it will be difficult even to understand what they say. After working together to successfully re-arrange the room, now when one of those people speaks, there is already a tiny bit of a bond. As a result, each person tries a little harder to understand accented speech. If you don’t understand something, you are slightly more apt to speak up and ask what was said. Perhaps, the initial common ground of a successful physical task made the entire two day workshop go more smoothly. I wonder whether others have experienced anything similar. Comments welcome.