Forests and Trees, Trees and Forests

I have been teaching and coaching communication skills for a long time… twenty years in fact. Which is a strength, in many ways. I have a large reservoir of experiences and stories, and have seen a lot. But doing anything for a long period of time can also be a weakness. Your experience can become a blind spot if you are not careful. I am acutely aware of this, and am always trying (desperately at times) to find new ways of looking at things, and different ways to explain what good communication actually is.

And I found one over the weekend, in Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book Talking to Strangers. Summarizing anything Gladwell writes is a challenge, because he writes about such fascinating topics with such incision and detail. But in short, in Talking to Strangers Gladwell demonstrates how our human instincts often betray us when trying to understand and communicate with people we don’t know all that well. He uses example after example from history, that include stories about well-known historical figures like Fidel Castro, Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler, to everyday stories from the news, to show how bad we are, as a species, at reading situations and each other. And his ultimate point is that in a world that is becoming increasingly interconnected and more diverse by the day, an ability to read each other, and an awareness of the people we meet has become an imperative. Our lives are full of encounters with people who may not share our perspectives, beliefs or values. And he argues that the ways in which we misperceive and misunderstand each other have a profound impact on ourselves and the world around us. 

He caught my attention right away at the beginning of the book, when telling us about a traffic stop between a police officer and a driver that went horribly wrong. The encounter was entirely avoidable, and the ensuing political debate was highly unproductive. Why? Because of the dramatically different perspectives the sides brought to the discussion, and this almost genetic blind spot we have in situations like these. Everyone, starting with the officer and the driver, were talking past each other. Gladwell writes (partially paraphrased, for brevity): Why write a book about a traffic stop gone awry? Because the debate (about what happened) spawned a back-and-forth conversation that was deeply unsatisfying. One side made the discussion from a view looking down from ten thousand feet. The other side examined each detail of the case with a magnifying glass… One side saw a forest, but no trees. The other side saw a tree, and no forest. 

He goes on to explain that there is something very wrong  with the tools and strategies we use to make sense of each other, especially the people we don’t know very well. The resulting communication gaps based on misreads and misunderstandings are a significant issue for all of us.

As I was reading Gladwell’s book, I started to overlay my own experiences. Most of the disagreements that I have been a part of, or have witnessed up close, can be reduced down to the simple fact that opposing parties are arguing from different places, with no recognition of the opposite perspective or the gap between them. My experience completely matched up with Gladwell’s premise. When we argue, we either don’t see the opposite perspective, or can’t, or don’t even care to try. Most disagreements can be reduced down to, in Gladwell’s parlance, one side arguing about the forest as a whole, and the other side arguing about one individual tree in the forest. An oversimplification, perhaps. But a valuable way to think about the challenge of connection and communication, nonetheless.

My colleagues and I spend an enormous amount of time teaching some fundamental mindset shifts when it comes to communication skills. We believe that great communication is actually not about a list of best practices or “to do” items. Rather, we believe that the foundation for great communication comes from an interest in and ability to at least try to understand the perspective of others. And that when we can do this well, we have laid the foundation for connection, trust, respect and ultimately powerful communication skills.

So, as I read the first few chapters of Gladwell’s new book, I kept coming back to this metaphor of forests and trees, and I now have a new way of thinking about how I will communicate. Am I speaking to someone who will likely be looking at the forest, or looking at the trees. And what do I want them to see? The forest or an individual tree? And if I want them to see an individual tree, are we talking about the same individual tree? When I can balance what I want them to see, and what I think they might currently be seeing, I now have a chance to connect. Not a guarantee. But a chance. Perhaps a good one.

So the next time you are getting ready for an important conversation, think about this metaphor. Do you want this to be a “forest discussion”, or a “trees discussion”? And what will the other side’s entry point be? Connect those two dots and you are on your way.

Have a great day.

(Post script: If you are not already a Malcolm Gladwell fan, I commend him to your attention. I know of no other author who writes about important issues, with better clarity, context and historical consciousness than Mr. Gladwell. In addition to Talking to Strangers, I recommend Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers, and David and Goliath.)

Does your team:
– Take too long to make decision?
– Fail to ask for what it wants or needs from you?
– Make things too complicated?
– Deliver unconvincing or disorganized presentations?
– Have new hires who are unprepared to communicate in the workplace?

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Dean Brenner

A book about change

The Latimer Group’s CEO Dean Brenner is a noted keynote speaker and author on the subject of persuasive communication. He has written three books, including Persuaded, in which he details how communication can transform organizations into highly effective, creative, transparent environments that succeed at every level.