What We Don’t Know Can Hurt Us…

[H]uman interaction is one of the most common and, yet, least considered activities we engage in – from cradle to grave. From the first gurgles of a baby seeking connection with a mother, through to the most powerful executives in boardrooms across the world, we are hard-wired to seek engagement; communication and interaction.

As instinctively as we draw breath, we strike up conversation or respond to others. But as intuitively as we seem to believe it is, we don’t always get it right. The workplace is plagued by communication breakdown, misunderstood messages and failed negotiation with all of the relationship damage, derailment of plans and financial detriment that they inevitably cause. So imagine the possibilities for a team or leader that held the code to effective human interaction. It’s a little known secret – but it does exist. And after nearly five decades of clinical testing, it is finding its way into organisations across the world, with incredible results.

The source of frequent miscommunication is actually relatively obvious. Every time we find ourselves in a group we are learning something about the art of human interaction. Throughout life, we incrementally learn what works; what doesn’t; what reaps reward and what bring disappointment or ridicule from others around us. Our parents, siblings, school friends and enemies all play a weighty role in shaping our early internal stories; narratives which we have filed away in a dusty corner of the brain, but which are nevertheless surprisingly powerful in shaping how we behave today. These stories and experiences form the unique lens through which we view the world and that lens frames how we interact with others.

Of course, we don’t acknowledge this in our adult lives. We treat our personal beliefs about the ‘right’ way to behave with one another as sacrosanct – and, because they are not simply plucked out of a textbook but rather are built on our most memorable experiences, they are laden with even greater importance. They shape part of our identity. Wherever there is difference (an inevitability in any group) there will be a clash of identities on some level, ranging from the mild and unspoken, to the strong and outwardly expressed – because what is important to me, will not necessarily be something you care about. You didn’t have my experiences, nor did I have yours. These differences are what show up the minute we find ourselves in face to face communication with others. Even the most tolerant of us are, often without realising it, judging others based on a construct of important beliefs we have developed with the benefit of our precious personal lens.

With such varied experiences driving our beliefs about what is crucial to ‘successful’ human interaction, it’s really not terribly surprising that working effectively and even, at times, civilly with one another, is one of life’s greatest challenges. And, in the workplace, a failure to be able to do so, costs businesses millions every year.

In the 1970s, a former Harvard graduate and lecturer decided to undertake a social experiment like no other. Recognising that there were very clear differences between groups which functioned effectively and those that repeatedly broke down, Dr David Kantor set out to explore what differentiated those groups. The setting he chose was the family system, where our most formative experiences take place. And so began the most remarkable experiment, somewhat akin to the modern day ‘Big Brother’. Cameras and audio equipment were placed in the homes of families across the US; recording their day to day activity, resulting in thousands of hours of footage. Dr Kantor wanted to understand why some human interactions led to positive outcomes for the group members whilst others led to the most catastrophic failures. Why, for example, did one child successfully get the raise in pocket money he was seeking, while the other failed to achieve a similar outcome? What happened to those same behaviours when the participants were clearly under pressure?

Trawling through the footage, Dr Kantor gradually began to notice patterns emerging in the interactions that took place between certain individuals. They were patterns that repeated themselves frequently, even when they brought about detrimental outcomes. He started to give names to the communication acts that he saw and, in doing so, eventually created a code for every verbal act that it is possible for one human to utter to another. So you might imagine that in those thousands of hours, there were thousands of different types of verbal act? Not so. Every single utterance could be explained by just 10 simple terms.

It is these 10 terms which form the bedrock of his theory of ‘Structural Dynamics’; a theory with nearly five decades of clinical testing now behind it. Structural Dynamics identifies the structures that sit beneath any conversation which explain why it succeeds or fails. It strips back the personal stories, experiences and natural human differences to expose a structure which applies anywhere where you find people in face to face interaction.

Every person present in a conversation brings with them a series of preferences which can be named using a combination of just three of the 10 terms. These describe the behaviour they typically exhibit when in a normal, low stakes conversation with another. The theory can predict what an individual is most likely to do in a conversation, what language they are most likely to use and the environment that they are most likely to thrive within. It can also anticipate their most significant clashes and what role they are playing in the group’s success or failure.

The truth is, it doesn’t matter what the topic of conversation is; in any group the invisible, structural element is present and, unbeknown to the participants, it is playing its part in determining the outcome.

When you’ve been immersed in human interaction your whole life, it can be difficult to believe that there are forces at work, determining your communicative success without your knowledge. A lifetime of being in face to face communication with others makes us experts… right? Well, on some level, yes… but only about the bits you knew existed.

Take, for example, when your car breaks down, I’ll hazard a guess you don’t spend too long looking at the paintwork as a potential cause. It would be a waste of time, the problem isn’t superficial – it’s in the mechanics. We can’t see those, but we know they are there, giving what is otherwise an expensive, useless object, utility. Yet when group dynamics are not working as they should, we are drawn to what we know exists – and our experience tells us that’s the superficial. We look for visible clues and draw conclusions riddled with assumption and filtered through our own unique and yet wholly imperfect lens. It’s rarely possible to identify patterns from these because, for however many people you have in the room, there are just as many unique lenses. In any case, it is somewhat comparable to the mechanic studying the paintwork, because it’s not where the problem lies. The answer is sitting out of view – completely invisible to those who don’t know that these structures exist.

We all know that the mechanic who stands around looking at the paintwork can’t solve the problem. Worse still, if he doesn’t even know or understand the mechanics that lie beneath, we can be pretty confident he’ll never get the car back on the road. In contrast, organisations and teams that understand the simple language of Structural Dynamics are skilled in the mechanics of human interaction. They can look for the previously invisible patterns of communication themselves, and know how to fix the broken ones that they find. These teams are proven to become more effective in thinking together, supporting one another and achieving a higher level of performance in whichever environment they operate and whatever goals they seek to achieve.

In business, Structural Dynamics is a game-changer, transforming expensive structures, which lack the utility they could have, into teams which fulfil their true potential.

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