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In conversation, people tend to keep a lot of true feelings to themselves, holding back their honest opinions and beliefs. We do this for fear of offending, to avoid being too direct and to respect the social convention of courteous, calm conversation. This reserved, polite discourse is very helpful in many social situations, particularly every-day, surface conversations. However, when we must deal with difficult conversations these “cover ups” are much more likely to cause trouble.

Think about it: you are having a disagreement with someone, or you need to give direct and not completely positive feedback at work about a colleague’s presentation. If you are too concerned about maintaining these social conventions you will share with the other person ONLY A PORTION of your thoughts and very little of what might truly matters: your honest feelings and personal ideas.

In this process of keeping conversations overly civil we often fill the holes in the story with our own pieces. Since the people having the conversation are not expressing their true feelings and intentions, we are forced to create and manufacture those intentions in our own heads. And if the argument is about intentions—yours and mine, what I think about your intentions will affect what I think about you and, ultimately, how our conversation goes.

Enter the “Left-Hand Column” one of my favourite among the leadership exercises for helping articulate that which we normally do not say. It is useful for when you can’t reach agreement with someone, when you are being treated unfairly, or when your organization is opposing your change initiative.

The Left Hand Column consists of taking a piece of paper and drawing a line down the middle. Title the left hand column “What I’m thinking” and the right hand column “What is said.” Then, write out a recent challenging dialogue, filling each column honestly like you would transcribe from a tape-recorder. For example, here is a scenario involving a student receiving feedback on a term paper from a professor that she doesn’t particularly like

What I’m thinking/feeling

Student: Why am I here? This is stupid.

Student: Review? You mean that you don’t like my paper…Be honest!

Student: I don’t see what the big deal is; I think the paper is fine.

Student: What now? I knew he had something he didn’t like…

Student: He is so demanding! I hope this class will be over soon.

What is said

Student: I’m confused about this grade Professor.

Professor: I wanted to review your paper and the assignment, I noticed a few problems.

Student: What’s your concern?

Professor: Your arguments are weak. I want you to review these theories if you have a moment.

Student: Ok.

The Left‐Hand Column is a very effective tool for promoting “reflection in action” or the ability to identify the dynamics of a situation and comment on them as they unfold in a conversation by offering direct advocacies and inquiries into the discussion. Ultimately, our right hand columns should begin to look more and more like the left, albeit slightly more reserved.

Through exercises like the Left‐Hand Column, we are able to understand the difference between our espoused theories (what we say and believe as an ideal) and theoriesinuse (implied theory in what we actually do). Learning how to use these skills can lead to new learning about ourselves, because they allow us to uncover our own “mental models:” the comfortable “template” for how to think about situations that we use over and over again to explain our ideas, conclusions and beliefs.

What could you accomplish in your team with a deeper awareness of your thoughts and feelings during difficult conversations?