…when to correct and when to riff…
Say you’re having a conversation with someone, and you’re trying to talk about a concept or make sense of an experience or something. And you say “so it’s sort of, you know, ABC…” and they nod and they say “ahh yeah, like XYZ”
…but XYZ isn’t quite what you had in mind.
There can be a tendency, in such a situation, to correct the person, and say “no, not XYZ”. Sometimes this makes sense, othertimes it’s better to have a different response. Let’s explore!
The short answer is that this sort of correction is important if it matters specifically what you meant. Otherwise (or if this is ambiguous) it can frustrate the conversation.
The most extreme example of where it feels like it matters is if you have a particular thing in mind that you’re trying to explain to the other person—like maybe someone is asking me to tell them about my app, Complice:
Me: “It’s a system where each day you put in what you’re doing towards your long-term goals, and track what you accomplish.”
Them: “Ohh, so like, you use it to plan out projects and keep track of all of the stuff you need to do… deadlines and so on…”
Me: “Ahh, no, it’s much more… agile than that. The idea is that long-term plans and long task lists end up becoming stale, so Complice is designed to not accrue stuff over time, and instead it’s just focused on making progress today and reflecting periodically.”
Where the shared goal is to hone in on exactly how Complice works, it makes sense for me to correct what they put out.
We might contrast that with a hypothetical continuation of that conversation, in which we’re trying to brainstorm, or flesh out an idea:
Me: “Although I’ve been trying to figure out how maybe I could add more future-planning to Complice, without it becoming stale…”
Them: “Hmm, so I guess things go stale because you don’t go back to update them…”
Me: “Right, yeah. I’ve been thinking about it as more of a ‘how can I automatically prevent it?’ but maybe you could also make it be like, ‘how can I entice people to go back and update their plans?'”
So again, the thing the person puts out in line 2 is not quite what I’m thinking about (as I state in the dialogue). But here, the shared goal is to figure out together what this staleness thing is and how it works, so in line 3, I explore that. We’re trying to build up an understanding together, and for me to just say “no, that’s not what I’m thinking” would basically imply that I’m just using them as a sounding board and I’m not open to hearing their perspective.
Speaking of hearing someone’s perspective, though, sometimes in that situation you do want to correct, so you can hone in on their experience.
Them: “Yeah, and I think like, when I think of my old plans, I don’t want to look at them because I know that they’re really bad…”
Me: “Oh, so it’s like, then you feel ashamed that they aren’t better?”
Them: “No, it’s more like a messy room—it’s kind of overwhelming and I don’t know where to even start trying to make it better.”
Here, within the shared goal of grokking staleness, we have a shared subgoal of understanding what this person’s experience is of being averse to revisiting old plans. So if I posit that maybe it’s shame-related, and they introspect and feel like it isn’t, then I want to be corrected!
So it’s clear from the dialogue above that there are two patterns of interaction here, both of which are valuable. How might we describe the distinction?
One metaphor I really like comes from music. I’ve used the word “hone” several times in this essay, and it captures one mode well, covering both the idea of converging on a target and the idea of sharpening something. If we’re making music together, this is like practising so that we’re totally in sync, or perhaps it’s someone trying to teach someone else a particular piece. Let’s call this Honing Mode, and the main verb it has is correcting.
The alternative way of making music together is jamming. While jamming is improvisational, it’s not that anything goes—you still need to play something that fits the rhythm of the music and that also makes sense given what the other person just played. But there’s no “right way”, or specific target, just an exploring of the space. In Jamming Mode, the main verb is riffing—taking what’s present and expanding on it.
I think that one reasons conversations break down is that these two dynamics aren’t in balance.
The failure mode where you have too much honing/correcting and not enough jamming/riffing looks like bad improv: people getting in each other’s way and not being able to create anything. Here’s Keith Johnstone talking about his experience teaching people about this:
I put the lists aside and get the students to play ‘shop’.
“Can I help you?”
“Yes, I’d like a pair of shoes.”
“Would these do?”
“I’d like another colour.”
“I’m afraid this is the only colour we have, Sir.”
“Ah. Well, perhaps a hat.”
“I’m afraid that’s my hat, Sir.”
And so on—very boringly, with both actors ‘blocking’ the transaction in order to make the scene more ‘interesting’ (which it doesn’t).
This is from Impro, a brilliant book. Even if you haven’t done improv, you probably recognize the experience of feeling like you can’t get anything through in a conversation, or that all of your attempts to connect seem to fall flat.
The alternate failure mode, where you have too much jamming and not enough honing looks like brainstorming gone wild: people are just suggesting ideas, and you end up with… a lot of ideas, but none of them are much good, and… there are way too many of them, and people are starting to get a bit checked out and not feeling like they’re able to communicate the core of anything important. Each person is just riffing on the previous person’s ideas without trying to hone in on what’s really of value.
The original instructions for brainstorming come from Alex Osborn in 1942, and included a rule not to criticize others ideas. However, evidence suggests that this may not actually be very effective in practice. Disappointingly, we’ve known this for 50 years, and yet people still tout the old rules:
“The first empirical test of Osborn’s brainstorming technique was performed at Yale University, in 1958. Forty-eight male undergraduates were divided into twelve groups and given a series of creative puzzles. The groups were instructed to follow Osborn’s guidelines. As a control sample, the scientists gave the same puzzles to forty-eight students working by themselves. The results were a sobering refutation of Osborn. The solo students came up with roughly twice as many solutions as the brainstorming groups, and a panel of judges deemed their solutions more “feasible” and “effective.” ”
The article goes on to cite a different study that found group creativity works best if you include a mix of “freewheeling”—making lots of suggestions without worrying about quality—and also debating—caring about the quality of what has been suggested, and trying to critique and improve it.
…much as I posited above.
At the design consultancy Continuum, they try to include a mix of the classic improv line “Yes, AND” and also “No, BECAUSE” which they consider the core motion of debate, or “deliberative discourse”, as they call it. More here.
I think the the key point here is that there’s a huge difference between constructively debating against someone’s idea, and simply dismissing it. Taking the time to engage with what someone said, to understand it, and refute it, can be a way of showing respect for them bringing it up. Dismissing an idea without fully considering it isn’t really good jamming or good honing. “No, BECAUSE” is a decent simple practice for getting past that.
If people feel unsafe—if it feels like the relationship is at stake in a given conversation—that can create various interesting psychological challenges to thinking together.
One thing that can come up is a strong need to be understood—almost a paranoia of not being understood. This can create an inability to let someone else riff on your idea, because you’re afraid they haven’t actually grokked the core of it yet. So you’ll find yourself feeling their riffing is them not understanding, and you’ll try to correct them, but this will end up being blocky.
The complementary fear is that if your idea is criticized then that is a rejection of you as a person. This makes it scary to riff, because others’ corrections feel like they’re saying you have a problem. Here you get people trying to be creative and original, but feeling like they have to get it right the first time because otherwise they’re boring. And simultaneously, feeling threatened by what others come up with, creating an urge to reject such things regardless of their quality.
To some extent, these fears can be reduced by having basic group cultural norms such as the notion that sharing terrible ideas doesn’t make you a terrible person. But a lot of it is going to end up depending on the individuals and on the relationships (and past experiences) present in a given interaction. On the underlying sense of safety.
Unsafety can manifest in different ways, that might not always be easy to recognize. The book Crucial Conversations uses a two-part model:
When unsafe, people resort to either silence or violence.
SILENCE: purposefully withholding information from the dialogue.
– Used to avoid creating a problem.
– Always restricts the flow of meaning.
– common forms include masking, avoiding, and withdrawing
VIOLENCE: convincing, controlling, or compelling others to your viewpoint.
– Violates safety by forcing [one’s own] meaning into the [shared] pool [of meaning] – common forms include controlling, labeling, and attacking.
What the authors of that book recommend is to step out of the content of the discussion, e.g. “whether or not to get a new car” and to get clear on the shared purpose of the conversation. This lines up well with my comments above that jamming and honing each make different kinds of sense depending on the shared purpose. Sometimes, people are reasonably able to navigate this naturally, but it helps to have some known tools in your kit for pointing at the desired experience of relating.
So here are two tools:
– Jamming Mode: divergent, playful, building on ideas, remixing, exploring tangents, expansive.
– Honing Mode: convergent, systematic, critiquing ideas, synthesizing, pruning excess, focused.
And you can balance between these modes not just between conversations, but every few sentences. I recommend installing a little trigger-action plan something like:
when I notice that my conversation is feeling a bit blocked or dead, I’ll pause and consider if I’m jamming where honing would be better, or vice versa. If it feels possible to simply switch, I’ll try that. Otherwise, I’ll try taking a step back and talking to the person on the meta-level.
This meta-level talking might be easier if you have a shared vocabulary to talking about your conversational dynamic and how it might be getting stuck:
Therefore, another recommendation I’ll make is to share this post with the people you relate to regularly, so that you’ve got this shared vocabulary. And be clear that that’s the purpose, otherwise they might feel like you’re trying to say “here, this article explains what you’re doing wrong.” Creating safety in relationships isn’t a one-sided thing.
Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Complice, a system for achieving your important goals.