Archive for August, 2013

Huh? What? What did You Say?

August 15, 2013

I am rarely dumbfounded by a conversation… Well, I am often dumbfounded, but I rarely listen to the end, and then suddenly stumble in mid-sentence and fail to ferret out something – anything of the intended meaning and context when we wrap up. I can recall three conversations in my lifetime where I left feeling total puzzlement because I failed to grasp anything my companion intended at the end. This naturally happens at the end of the conversations – all signs point to comprehension until – “zing”- suddenly, we “ran off the rails”, and nothing that followed made sense to me (or probably to either of us…). Just the other day, I had a forth such conversation. It was all I could do not to ask, “Huh? What? What did you say? What don’t you understand?” after an hour of obvious comprehension. So as not to embarrass anyone or alienate myself, I will ponder on this in the most abstract way I can.

I am talking with an acquaintance about an opportunity. It is a serous conversation. We are talking about millions of dollars of investment – years of work – a transformation of attitude – a paradigm shift. I can see aspects of the “plan” so clearly in my brain. I see the primary opportunity, the complimentary opportunities, the obvious risk set, the “forks in the road”, the tests and challenges, the measures of progress and success, and the endpoint… It is all pretty clear in my brain. I am listening hard when we start to explore the “forks in the road” because, suddenly, nothing my acquaintance is saying makes any sense. I call this phenomenon “orthogonal conversation”.

When I talk about strategic matters with a client, I “peel the onion” – pretty much the plan path as I explained above. I am particularly intent to explore the risk set and the forks in the road with every key player in my client’s organization if this is work-related – these are the nuances that can influence how decision makers’ think about a portfolio of opportunities, and these conversations can reveal significant new issues to me that my client never indicated (but should have…).

Now with my recent acquaintance, I am struggling to figure out 1) what significant concept I don’t know or understand that this other person does, or 2) what fundamental thing the other person does not understand? It’s one or the other because suddenly our thinking is inconsistent and nothing is making sense… Suddenly, the context has changed, the opportunity seems to have changed, and even the language has changed – the use of key words… I am still scratching my head wondering how to unwind this and get back on track.

Has that ever happened to you?

Let me take a little detour – just for a moment to make this “real” for you – an illustration of the puzzlement. While at Rice in a linear algebra class, we were handed a mid-term exam that I was certain I would do well on. The first page was easy enough. The second page was one that I couldn’t complete a single problem on. The science and engineering courses at Rice were known for testing on what you were not taught in class – “Can you extend the basics on the fly?” was the point of many of our exams. Here, I could not work through a single problem on half of the exam. I was really thrown off balance. Did I miss something fundamental? I was a bit “pissed off” and I was dumbfounded. The entire class was dumbfounded, I discovered. In the next class session, the professor returned the first page of the exams (every problem correctly answered for me) and explained that the erroneous second page was from an exam for his tensors class. “SORRY…”, he said. OK – felt better.

You can now imagine how I feel in these orthogonal conversations when suddenly, nothing makes sense. I had my fourth such conversation in my lifetime just the other day. I am still scratching my head wondering just how to get us back on the tracks…