“No, you don’t understand. You see, I show up late for work because I have trouble waking up on time.”

If someone’s behavior is bugging you, the generous way to broach the topic is to ask what drives the behavior. If there’s a good explanation, you can learn to accommodate it. If there isn’t, you can press for change.

Conversely, if, out of the blue, someone asks you to explain why you do something that comes naturally to you, and you accommodate them by supplying an explanation, the exchange feels complete — which makes it feel odd, or even sneaky, when, after you make clear your explanation, they start demanding that you change.

Therefore, after one person demands, and the other person supplies, an explanation, there is often a pause, a moment tottering between collaboration and stand-off. That’s because explanations are the unsteady planks that bridge the gap between what is and what should be, between accepting things as they are and trying to improve things.

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup


Explanations are like a seesaw. Standing on the “what-should-be” side (the employee should get to work on time), you beckon, saying, “Come meet me in the middle. Explain your behavior.” Reluctantly, the employee gets up and moves from his or her “what-is” comfort zone toward you in the middle of the seesaw.

What ensues is a shuffling, unstable dance over the fulcrum, in which you both try to tip the seesaw your way. The easiest way to do so is to retreat to your side and jump up and down, which is something people in power can do — but in collaborations, that kind of behavior damages rapport. Typically, therefore, the dance is subtler than that, as both sides try to look reasonable and act as though their explanations are merely accurate reflections of what’s true, rather than interpretations designed to persuade.

The biases are nonetheless felt. You suspect that your employee’s explanations are just rationalizations, arguments designed primarily to prove that the status quo is good enough. Your employee suspects that your explanations as just rhetoric, craftedto persuade him to do what you want. Shuffling back and forth together on a seesaw, you’re negotiating for new stability together, but also separately, on your own terms, searching for some solution to the tension between what is and what should be.

There are three general outcomes of this dance: You can tip together toward the status quo, with you accepting the employee ‘s justifications. You can tip together toward change, with the employee joining you in a commitment to reform. Or you can retreat to your respective sides frustrated.

Each of these outcomes constitutes a resolution of sorts, the alternative to which is continued negotiation. Notice, therefore that this evokes a second debate about whether to keep things the same (keep negotiating) or change them (bring the negotiation to a close). So now there are two questions on the table. First, should he change his behavior or you change your attitude. Second, should you keep negotiating about the first issue or should you bring it to closure.

This may sound complicated, and it is. We rarely stop to analyze such two-tiered give and take debates. But we experience them often—the debates about whether to agree, or to “agree to disagree” on some other controversial issue we’ve been negotiating. These seesawing debate’s rhetoric is the soundtrack to pretty much all human give and take dramas. One word that shows up frequently on the soundtrack is “Just,” and that for interesting reasons.

Just Give Me One Good Reason

Looking for an explanation implies there is only one — the one true reason for a behavior rather than multiple reasons. The interpretive dance on the seesaw of explanations is partly about getting your opponent to focus on the one reason that matters to you, to the exclusion of alternative reasons.

When we say, “Look, I’m just doing it to be helpful, ” we’re using the word “just” to mean, “Ignore all other possible explanations. Focus on this one explanation with me and you’ll have to admit nothing has to change.” When we say, “No, you’re just doing this to bug me,” we’re using the word “just” to mean, “Ignore all other possible explanations. Focus on this one explanation with me and you’ll have to admit that it’s time for a change.”

Negotiations over how best to explain a behavior are, therefore, in part a competition over quantity of allowed explanations. In a stand-off, each opponent enters the negotiation armed with one sufficient explanation and demands that the other agree to include it, too, but both opponents already have their one sufficient explanation and don’t see what else needs to be explained, and therefore don’t understand why they need to include additional explanations. Having a single explanation keeps things simple, while having more than one makes us uncertain.

Even a single specious explanation is enough, as psychologist Ellen Langer showed in experiments into the persuasive power of explanation. In studies about the efficacy of persuading a person to grant permission to cut in line to use a copy machine, people granted cuts 60 percents of the time in response to an unexplained request, and 94 percent of the time when requests were accompanied by a single explanation. Amazingly, the quality of the explanation didn’t matter. “Can I cut? I have to make some copies” was just as effective as “Can I cut? I’m late for class.”

Negotiating With Yourself

As you may remember from childhood, there’s a solo version of this balancing act, straddling the fulcrum atop a seesaw, shifting your weight and feeling the instability. Suppose you’ve made a tough decision and are experiencing buyer’s remorse: You’ve landed on a new what-is, but it doesn’t feel right. You find yourself reviewing your decision — in effect, calling yourself into the middle of the seesaw. Something feels amiss. It demands explanation. You say, “I’ve made my decision. So why do I feel so unsatisfied?”

You might cycle between two explanations. One is tilted toward accepting things:

“There’s nothing to do. This is just buyer ‘s remorse. I’d feel it with any decision. After all, there were trade-offs, so, yes, I am disappointed to give up the other options. And, besides, it’s not like the choice I made resolves anything. It was a bet, and it will be a while before I know whether the bet paid off.”

The other is an explanation tilted toward changing things:

“This dissatisfaction I’m feeling indicates that I’ve got to revisit my decision. It’s a sign that I’ve chosen wrong, and I should probably go back to change my mind.”

So, even without an opponent, we totter. That’s because there are two distinct uses of explanations — to calm us, and to call us to action — and they are in direct conflict with each other. If you’re going to stick with your decision, you need to mute the dissatisfaction so you can move forward with focus and confidence. But if you’re going to reopen your decision, you’ll need to stir up the dissatisfaction.

And then there’s that second-tier question about how long you’re going to wonder whether to rethink your decision; how long you’ll hem and haw.

“Here Let Me Help. . .Oops!”

We often rehearse this balancing act out loud and, in giving voice to our unsettled state, we sometimes attract attention. A friend sees you tottering and reads it as a cry for help. The friend weighs in, heroically, on one side of the seesaw or the other, saying, “Look, if it doesn’t feel right, you should just go back and change your mind” or, “This is just a mood. You’ll get over it. It’s all going to work out fine.”

But maybe you weren’t ready for the friend ‘s advice. It feels clumsy for someone to bust in on your delicate decision-making process and lean almost arbitrarily on one side of the balance or the other. Fortunately, there’s an easy way to avoid such clumsiness.

Are You Mulling A Decision, Or Making One?

In all three of these situations — negotiating an explanation with an opponent, negotiating an explanation within yourself, or negotiating within yourself while someone else tries to help — there’s one simple trick; one that’s central to all of science’s success and makes for much more productive decision processing. This science trick boils down to an adage:

” To get what you want, set aside what you want long enough to see what is.”

Science got good at explaining how things work, because it got good at seeing the seesaw. Rather than trying to satisfy descriptive needs and prescriptive needs with one explanation, it focused on description first, explaining what’s going on without hoping that it will tell people instantly how to change what’s going on. Once science could explain how something worked, attention could shift, explaining how to make it work differently in order to get it to do something we want it to do.

That approach is missing in alchemy. Alchemists’ experiments were clouded by their yearning to turn lead into gold, the cross between science and engineering. As science got more sophisticated, however, it figured out how to decouple description from prescription, science from engineering, and, paradoxically, both systems improved. In our personal and work lives, we can do something similar:

  • In negotiations, separate the pursuit of understanding from the pursuit of solutions. Start by trying to describe accurately why there’s a tension to be negotiated, and, once you have an accurate sense of the tension, only then should you decide what you’re going to do about it.
  • In solo soul searching, allow yourself time to emote, ruminate, mull, stew, and let off steam separate from deciding how to resolve the tension. Sometimes, when we’re hurt, we’re better off hurting the way a dog does. Just yelp “Ouch! ” instead of letting your machinating mind race immediately to an explanation, jumping to conclusions under the influence of pain and a yearning to fix things. Later, when the storm has passed, you can figure out what to do about it.
  • And, in soul searching in the company of friends, help them help you by making clear whether you’re simply expressing feelings, in which case they can help by listening and being there, or whether you’re ready to make a decision about what to do, in which case they can help by giving advice and suggestions. You can say, “I know I look like I need help, but I’m not ready to decide what to do about this situation. I’m not ready to think about solutions, so if you could just be with me for a little while.” And, likewise, a friend can ask for clarification. “I see you’re stressed, and I’d like to be of help, but I can’t tell whether you want me to just listen or whether you want me to suggest things.”

Applying this science trick, you’re turning your seesaw into two things: First simply seeing. And second, given what you’ve seen, deciding what to do about it, so that later you can say, “We saw a problem, and we addressed it.”

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