I have written previously about the Ladder of Inference, one of my favourite tools for promoting productive conversations.

https://valshebnik.com/blog/the-ladder-of-inference/

This helps us understand why we jump to conclusions, rightly or wrongly, and gives us a technique to explain our own thinking or to get others to explain their thinking to us.

Another tool I learned at the same time twenty years ago is the Left Hand Column. This also dates from Chris Argyris and his colleagues, and also helps promote productive conversations.

But whereas the Ladder of Inference is a fairly neutral technique, the Left Hand Column comes with a safety warning. Because it can also be used destructively.

Why Left Hand Column? Well, think of a sheet of paper divided into two columns. The ‘Right hand column’ is the literal conversation you had with someone. What was actually said. The ‘Left hand column’ though is what you were thinking and feeling at the time, but not saying.

Here’s a simple example, which I have taken directly from my old copy of ‘The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook’ (Peter Senge et al, Nicholas Brealey, 1994, p248).

What I was thinking (Jim) What was said
We’re two months late and I didn’t think he knew. I was hoping we could catch up

 

 

I need to make it clear I’m willing to take responsibility for this but I don’t want to volunteer for more work.

 

 

 

He never offers his help in the planning stage when I could really use it. Now it’s too late

 

 

The changes he keeps making are the real reason we are late. He must have another one.

 

 

 

It’s a shame I cant tell him he’s the cause of the delays. If I can hold him off two more weeks I think we’ll be ready

Todd, Jim’s boss: Jim, I’d like to come down there next week. We’re a few weeks behind and I think we might all benefit from a meeting at your office

 

Me: I’ve been very concerned about these deadlines. As you know we’ve had some tough luck here and were working around the clock. But of course we’ll squeeze in a meeting at your convenience.

 

Todd: Well it’s occurred to me that we could do with better coordination between us. There are probably some ways I could help.

 

Me: Well I’m happy to talk through any changes you have in mind

 

Todd: I don’t have anything specific in mind

 

Me: I’d like to have a prototype finished to show you before you come down. What if we set something up for the 27th?

 

The Left Hand Column is the little voice in our head that expresses the things we wouldn’t normally say out loud. Because we often choose not to communicate everything we are thinking or feeling. And this reluctance can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy where we can make and believe wrong conclusions about the other person. But we can learn to communicate what is in our Left Hand Column and understand what is in others’ in ways that make everyone feel safe and respected.

The exercise to learn how to use the Left Hand Column is simple. You indeed take some sheets of paper, draw a line down the centre of each and in the right-hand columns you write a conversation that you actually had with someone, or a group discussion, maybe a difficult or unsatisfactory one. When you’ve finished, start at the top in the left-hand column and write out what you were thinking and feeling but not saying.

In real life meetings and discussions, the trick is then to use the Left Hand Column to flag and check out what someone really means and thinks. ‘Hey, I’m probably wrong but my Left Hand Column suggests that you might really be thinking……’. ‘I’ve been making some assumptions in my Left Hand Column and I want to check something with you……’. ‘Can I ask you something? My Left Hand Column is saying……’

This type of engagement process encourages us to become more aware of our and other people’s Left Hand Column thoughts and the insights we gain can make our conversations more honest and productive.

It doesn’t mean though that you have carte blanche to say hurtful things under the cover of being ‘honest’ about your left-hand column. Some of your left-hand thoughts probably should stay hidden!

This risk of misuse is one of the reasons some people think that the Left Hand Column can best be applied with the help of a facilitator or external consultant. Personally I have seen that mature teams are able to manage the Left Hand Column themselves, but it remains a risk.

Just remember that the purpose is to raise in a non-threatening and polite way, those assumptions and potential mutual misunderstandings, whose resolution would most contribute to more fruitful future conversations.

So Do:

  • Remain conscious of what is in your Left Hand Column
  • Examine and process the contents of your Left Hand Column to uncover your assumptions and feelings
  • Use what you’ve learned to make interactions with others more productive
  • Invite others to become conscious and examine their own Left Hand Columns
  • Be curious about other’s Left Hand Columns

And Don’t:

  • Dump negative Left Hand Column thoughts into the conversation
  • Ignore your Left Hand Column thoughts and feelings
  • Be judgmental about others’ Left Hand Columns. They are just as valid (and potentially incorrect) as your own!

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