Discussing the Undiscussable – Notes and Quotes

Discussing the Undiscussable: A Guide to Overcoming Defensive Routines in the Workplace” by William R. Noonan is one of those books that can set you down a new path in life. It’s not a new book but is the first one recommended on Benjamin Mitchells blog for those wanting to read about the work of Chris Argyris.

The book describes the reasons behind and techniques to overcome the walls that we build in organisations to protect us from each other. We build these walls through defensive routines cunningly designed by us to protect our delicate egos from embarrassment. Unfortunately these walls also protect us from learning from others and sharing what we have learnt leaving organisations stagnant and impotent. This book holds the key to successful collaboration and I’d go as far to say a path to the end of the misery and frustration that many who really care about their organisation feel day-to-day. It leaves the reader under no illusion how entrenched these problems are in us and our organisations psyche. Making things better will be a long and slow process but as long as I’m heading in the right direction I’m happy.

What follows is some of my favourite quotes from the book. They do not cover the techniques described but remind me of the problems we face and how best to think about resolving them.

We’re all guilty of just agreeing with our boss because its easier than what could easily be misinterpreted as a challenge to their authority or a questioning of their competence but: “The cost of showing respect by not disagreeing with those in authority carries a heavy price. Inefficiencies are tolerated and accepted. Business meetings lack robust discussion of diverse ideas. Ultimately the quality of decision making suffers due to the lack of information flowing to the top of the organisation”

The book teaches how to make difficult conversations a bit more effective and teaches the skills required to deal with others defensive routines and just as importantly make us aware of ours. Recently I’ve been picked up by @tobiasmayer by referring to “the business” as an entity not people, I’m guilty of propagating the aura of externality: “The most tenacious aspect of an organisational defensive routine is external to us and our range of influence. The perception that the problem is “out there” is a hard one to shake loose. An “aura of externality” to use another phrase coined by Chris Argyris, inhabits an organizational defensive routine.”

“Each division is dedicated to the pursuit of excellence in its respective area of expertise. Divisions and departments make decisions that serve their own self interest. When self interests conflict there is a good chance that one party will  do something that causes difficulty for another department of division in the company. At that point, all the nasty intentions, whopping inferences, and damning judgements familiar to interpersonal interactions are attributed to whole classes of people labeled only as “Corporate”, “Management” or “the team”.

but there is hope: “Conflicts, disagreements, and dilemmas are worthy opportunities for productive conversations”. By making the effort to have these conversations and using techniques developed Chris Argyris and described in the book such as Left Hand Column, Ladder of Inference and Advocacy and Inquiry we can start the long process of breaking down these walls that pollute our workplace.

But it’s not easy: “When it comes to de-escalating defensive routines, the commitment to self-reflection and the willingness to engage the differences and discuss the dilemmas inherent in organization life are what it takes to step up to the plate; getting into the game calls for skill, endurance and daily practice”

The process starts with “Curiosity”, a desire to understand each others reasons behind their position: “A common dynamic in conversations where opposing views exist is for both parties to argue harder, louder, or better in order to convince the other of the “rightness” of their respective positions. There is an alternative. Instead of hurling conclusions back and forth, stop and ask a question. Making a high quality enquiry into another person’s view promotes learning and fosters a deeper understanding of how the person arrive at his or her conclusion”


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