How to resolve conflict, give better feedback, and clear up “interpersonal mush”
If we are going to learn from experience, we first must understand clearly what experience is.”Gervase Bushe, Clear Leadership
- Collaborative Practice: Experience Cube
- Difficulty: easy to moderate
- Time required: 5 minutes+
- What it is: a simple way to a) understand your own experiences more clearly, b) communicate your needs and wants more clearly to colleagues, and c) help clear away conflict, misunderstandings, and “interpersonal mush” in your team.
- When to use it: when giving feedback, addressing tension or conflict, or trying to be a better boss. You can also use it individually, on yourself, for journaling, self-reflection, or when you’re trying to strengthen a new muscle.
- Why it works: it helps you tease apart the individual threads of your and others’ experience, instead of them getting all tangled up in a big hairball of mush.
- Where it comes from: Dr. Gervase Bushe, organizational development experts, in his book Clear Leadership.
The four layers of human experience
Gervase Bushe argues that most human experiences are a bit like a layer cake that can be broken down into four key layers:
- Observations — What you see and hear. Just the basic facts. What a video camera would record.
- Thoughts — Your ideas, beliefs, judgments, and interpretations. The story you make up about the facts.
- Feelings — Emotions and sensations in your body. (“I felt angry.” “My hands got tingly.” “My pulse raced.”)
- Wants — Your desires, needs and wishes. Outcomes you want. (“I need x.” “I want y.”)
Experience Cube is a road map to your experience that you can use for deepening your awareness of your own experience, and for focusing your curiosity into the experience of others.”
How is this helpful to you? Let’s say you’re having a problem with a colleague. They’re consistently showing up late to your meetings, and it’s kinda pissing you off. You’ve scheduled a one-on-one to talk to them about it. How can walking through each of these four layers of the Experience Cube help your conversation go well?
1. Observations. Start with what you saw and heard. Just the facts. What a video camera would pick up.
- eg, “I noticed that you were late for the meeting again. It’s the third time you were late this month.”
- “I noticed that you were looking at your phone for most of the meeting.”
- “I noticed that you interrupted your colleagues four or five times during the meeting.”
The point of starting with observations — before you rush ahead to judgments or feelings — is that you are establishing a basic foundation in fact. You’re starting with empirical reality, instead of your judgments and feelings about reality. This is helpful because it means you are…
- less likely to start with a false assumption or basic miscommunication,
- less likely to trigger a threat response from the other person — because you’re starting with the easy stuff, the stuff that’s just objectively true, and probably harder to argue with, and
- you’re ensuring you both agree on the basic facts of what happened before you proceed any further. Because if you don’t agree on the basic facts first, there’s no stable foundation to build on.
2. Thoughts. Once you’ve established a shared basis in fact, move on to your thoughts or narrative or judgments. Thoughts are the story you attach to your observations. At this stage, try to reserve talking about your feelings and emotional state; that comes later.
- eg, “I think you’re late because you’re avoiding me and my team.”
- “My theory is that you’re consistently late because you’re not getting enough value from these meetings.”
- “My understanding is that you’re late because you have to drop your kids off at school in the morning. Is that accurate?”
The key point here is to slow down, try to avoid conflating / smushing your thoughts and feelings together, and check your theory or judgments with the other person before rushing ahead. (eg, “I think you’re avoiding me — and I’m freaking furious about it!” versus: “I think you may be avoiding me. Is that accurate?”)
3) Feelings. These are things you feel in your body, whether they’re a) bodily sensations (“my vision got kinda blurry,” “my face felt hot,” “my chest tensed up”) or b) emotions. “Sad, mad, glad, scared, nervous,” etc.
Be careful here! Many of us slip back into thoughts and judgments here, instead of actual feelings. We might be tempted to say something like: “I feel like you’re avoiding me.” That’s not actually a feeling — it’s a thought with the word “feel” tacked onto it. If it’s not on this list, it’s not actually a emotion.
Why does talking about the “F word” at work (aka feelings) help you? Because this is where things get human. And it’s what communicates why this is important to you personally. Why does this topic matter to you? How is affecting you?
- eg, “I’m feeling pretty upset about it at this point.”
- “I’m actually not too concerned about it.”
- “It makes me worry that you’re not taking this project seriously.”
Of all the layers, this is the one that in most cases, is most likely to trigger the greatest human impact. It’s where most of the breakthroughs happen. (And coincidentally, it’s also the layer that most of us tend to avoid at work.)
4) Wants: What do you need? What’s the outcome you’re seeking? Wants are desires, motivations, aspirations, needs, etc.
- eg, “Going forward, I need you to be on time — or let me know in advance that you’re going to be late.”
- “I want to feel like you’re taking this project seriously.”
- “I need to discuss this with the rest of the team.”
- “My goal is to make these meetings more valuable for you.”
Most of us suck at clearly stating our wants. We may be unclear about what we actually want, or have never seriously posed the question to ourselves. We may also have been socially conditioned to believe that wanting things is “wrong” or “bad,” or that being clear and explicit about this with others is “impolite.”
People are often not aware of their wants and desires because they are taught it is selfish or impolite to express their wants.”–Gervase Bushe
Issues related to diversity and inclusion can also play a huge role here; some people may feel safer or more encouraged to state what they want or need from the group than others.
We need to be cognizant of these factors. And, in a thoughtful and caring way, help ourselves and others clearly communicate what we want from the situation. Otherwise, it’s difficult to sustain lasting relationships or solve real problems. And instead we end up flailing, wheel-spinning, or drowning in mush.
What happens when we don’t get clear about our Observations, Thoughts, Feelings and Wants, and let confusion and miscommunication build up over time? We get what author Gervase Bushe calls “interpersonal mush.”
What is “interpersonal mush?” It’s essentially assumptions we make up about each other — without bothering to verify whether these stories are actually true. We make guesses about why others are acting the way they are. And then we start to conflate our stories with reality. We start believing our own fake news about one another. In other words: mush.
Getting to clarity means having authentic “learning conversations” with one another, using tools like Experience Cube to untangle the mush, one thread at a time. So that we can get back to reality.
The same can be true for ourselves as individuals. Call it “intrapersonal mush.” We confuse our judgments and stories about reality with what is actually empirically happening around us. We let our feelings overwhelm our better judgement, or ignore our feelings in ways that make us blind to their affect. We shy away from confronting what we actually want, and blame others instead.
Organizations are Interpersonal Mush Machines
They produce drama and complex, confusing experiences for all of us all the time. There’s no cure for mush. But tools like Experience Cube can help you spot the signs, take a breathe, and begin to unravel it.
Want to try it out? Here’s a Google Doc template you can use, with prompt questions that walk you through it.Experience Cube Template