If you want to avoid or resolve conflicts, it's not enough to be levelheaded; you must be multi-levelheaded and home in on the right level of analysis.
The funny thing about conversations is that they can escalate into fights, while at the same time they can also spread outward, proliferating into lots of distinct conversations all happening at once as one topic leads to another. Notice the swift generation of topics as John and Sue, a young couple, meet for an evening out and Sue shows up a few minutes late.
Jeremy E Sherman Ph.D.I've had the luxury of circumstance to spend the second half of my life wondering carefully without a lot of social constraints. I write, teach and research full time. My income doesn't depend upon it so I don't have to curb what I think to keep myself fed. I take good insights where I find them. I'm a very fussy shopper among interpretations, not that it ensures that I find good ones. Still, I try by means more rigorous than the usual self-confidence by which we declare ourselves discerning. A lot of my articles are about the art of science, the art of shopping among interpretations.
Editor: Nadeem Noor
Topic 1: About tonight's tardiness:
John: Why are you late?
Topic 2: The significance of being late:
Sue: It's not a big deal.
Topic 3: A general pattern of tardiness:
John: But you're often late.
Sue: No I'm not. I'm usually on time.
Topic 4: Sue's argumentation pattern:
John: You know, whenever I point out a bad habit, you deny it.
Topic 5: John's argument pattern:
Sue: You have a habit of always complaining about my habits.
Topic 6: Sue's motivation:
John: You change the topic because you don't like to look at your shortcomings.
Topic 7: John's motivation:
Sue: Does it make you feel superior to always find fault in me?
Topic 8: The general tendency for relationship conflict:
John: Do you notice we're fighting more and more?
Topic 9: Whether it's fighting:
Sue: We're not fighting, we're having a discussion.
Topic 10: What the real issue is:
John: You're changing the subject. The real issue is why you're always late.
Topic 11: John's habit of monitoring:
Sue: No, the real issue is why you feel the need to monitor me so closely.
Topic 12: Sue's general unreceptivity:
John: Forget it. Sorry I brought it up. I can't talk about anything with you.
A short exchange and already there are 12 topics in the air, none of which sustains both John's and Sue's attention long enough to be resolved. Every topic spawns another, the issues proliferating like mosquitoes in a summer swamp.
Such topic proliferation happens a lot when couples argue. It makes a conversation not only unmanageable but difficult to resolve. In John and Sue's case, the exchange ends not with fury but despair.
How to keep conversations focused on "the right" topic, the one that will lead to a solution? No formula exists, but it's possible to find leverage points.
Discovering the best level of analysis requires a certain navigational skill, a nimble capacity to zoom in, out, and around to different perspectives. Unfortunately, our natural tendency is to stay at the perspectives that "feel right"—typically those that reflect well on us.
Getting to the nub of things is an improvisational skill, and like all improvisational skills, it can be learned. It takes pattern-fluency—familiarity with the kinds of moves that can be made, the way a chess player is fluent in the patterns of chess.
Every conversation is different, but there are commonalities—for example, in how the leaping from topic to topic occurs, and especially how topics stack one upon the other, so that one is on a "higher level" than another.
Think Google Maps; it provides an apt metaphor for the cognitive skill of topic-prioritizing. You can zoom in or out to different scales, from seeing your hometown to viewing your home continent. You can scroll laterally in any direction, or home in on a specific location.
If resolution is the goal, every discussion needs a conversation tracker. A key skill is the ability to make sense of different levels of thought, analysis, and debate. A skillful tracker isn't just levelheaded. He or she must be multi-levelheaded, able to navigate the levels and able to zoom in and out to sniff out which one will yield the most productive interaction. Multi-levelheadedness may be the linchpin of emotional and intellectual intelligence.
You're upstairs working when you hear your children start fighting. You come downstairs demanding that they stop.
"But he grabbed my toy without even asking!" she shrieks. "She's lying," your son shouts. You announce, "I don't want to get into it. Just stop!"
Staying a level above their argument, you have just "gone meta." Understanding "going meta" is the key to multi-levelheadedness. You go meta on the fight when you don't enter into it but try to do something "about" it overall. Communicating "within" vs. "about" is the difference between one level and a higher one.
Despite your best efforts, your children keep trying to draw you in. They're angry that you don't take their sides. You find yourself arguing with them about whether you should be in the fight or outside it, simply trying to end it.
Your partner, who was also upstairs, comes down, takes you aside, and says, "Let them fight it out."
"How about you handle things your way, I'll handle things mine?" you reply. And already there are four topics swarming: the children arguing, you arguing with the children about their arguing, you arguing with your partner about whether to argue with the children, and now you're launching a new topic about whether you and your partner need a common strat-egy for dealing with the children's fights.
A mind-boggling hall of mirrors! Yet it's the stuff of everyday life. The master of multi-levelheadedness is able to track and monitor the levels even in such complexly nested interactions. How?
First, masters recognize there aren't just two simple levels—forests vs. trees, big picture vs. small. Levels can stack infinitely because for every meta-move, another can be made, as happened around the children's fight. Second, levels don't stack neatly. That's because any word, thought, or gesture can launch a new conversation "about" it. Levels pile on.
Confronted with a conflict, thetracker sees three possible moves: taking one of two opposing positions or shifting to a different level, as with the mother who tells the kids to stop fighting. Sue's husband, John, for example, can say, "No, you've got to stop being late." Or, "You're right, it's not a big deal, I'll get over it." Or he can shift to a new topic, such as "Notice we're fighting again" or even "This relationship isn't working."
Although topics can branch off in any direction, most relationships generate a few basic branchings over and over. Over time, we can identify our branching habits.
Tracking is essential to conversation management, and it's much easier when you name the levels. "Honey, I notice we have several topics on the table including how to handle the kids' fights and whether we both need to handle them the same way. Which would you like to talk about first?" Collaborative navigation is much easier when you use neutral names: "How we handle the kids' fights" will lead more to resolution than "your relentless nagging about how I'm raising the children wrong."
Incompatibility about "going meta" can lead to persistent habits of branching that defy easy resolution. For example, when embroiled in conflict, one partner may tend to go meta, analyzing and skipping up and down among levels, looking for the right perspective. The other may tend to hug the ground to let things blow over. If, as often happens, partners' different coping styles make each other anxious, tension will spiral, with one partner saying, "Why do you go silent? It makes me so frustrated," and the other saying, "Why do you need to analyze everything? It makes me so anxious."
If going meta in your own relationships gets similarly messy, find someone else to do it. If you get into John-and-Sue-style power struggles over "the right" issue, bring in an outsider, a trusted friend or therapist, to distinguish levels of analysis.
Here are two other pieces of advice to further multi-levelheadedness.
Give honest, clear navigational cues. In conversation, help each other see the landmarks and the moves between them.
Don't go meta only in conflict. If you talk about your relationships only when you're in trouble, you form discouraging associations—making stomachs clench whenever meta-communication comes up. You can go meta to say positive things too: "You know what I like about the way we communicate?"