Unwritten Rules

We all have the benefit of seeing things from our own perspective, even when we believe we take into account the perspectives of others.

Recently a friend and I found, halfway through a conversation, that we had some serious issues with the way the other approached a particular topic. What does it mean to have constructive dialogue, particularly when conflict arises?

We took a step back, talked about what we thought happened, and decided to write about it. What might that look like?

Well, here are the results, side by side.

Unwritten Rules

When was the last time you were in a two-way conversation and realized part-way through that you both felt bad?

I found myself in a conversation yesterday where I felt bad. The first reason was because I realized I had made the other person feel not listened to, and thus, not so great.

The second reason was because my conversation partner had chosen not to tell me I was answering a question that wasn’t meant to be answered. At least not by me. Which, feels as confusing as it sounds.

How often do you get frustrated at others for not following the rules you have established that others have yet to master? This, of course, assumes they have been previously exposed.

[That was a mouthful. Let’s try this again.]

How often do you get frustrated at others for not following the rules?

How were they taught the rules? Rather, how did they know the rules were rules? Are you invested in their understanding and mastery of these rules? Why does it matter?

The funny thing is, my conversation partner told me about the rules, or expectations, earlier in our conversation. Questions are quite important to her. And she feels strongly that some questions need time to be answered. (I would agree.)

She also feels strongly that some questions do not need an answer from you (i.e. if I bring up a question for discussion with you, I may not be asking you to answer the question, merely asking if I’m asking the right question).

She finds it important – actually, demands – that people accommodate questions and understand these differences. Also, she’s not big on rhetorical questions.

Granted, this is all taken out of context for you, as the reader. And if I was you, I might think this all to be a bit insane.

Actually, with all the context, I think this is a bit insane.

As I write, I can’t help but wonder how anyone would just ‘get this’ the first, or second, or maybe even third time around. The concept is clear, but complex without practice. Case in point, not long afterwards, a question was posed to me. And after quite some time, thanks to a slightly passive aggressive nudge, I realized I had been exploring and answering a question that was not meant for me to answer.

Was it my responsibility to know not to answer? Was it her responsibility to remind me of the rules when she realized what was happening – or to wait until it was over to teach me a lesson on the rules?

I’m searching for the right metaphor – would a referee in a sports match or game wait until the very end to call a foul?

To my friend’s credit, in our post game re-cap, she told me that she had let me continue answering the question well after she was ready to tell me I was not playing by the rules. She was curious if her desire to put rules on the conversation was limiting her from unexpectedly good results. But, in the end, she wanted what she wanted and we found ourselves in an unfortunate place where nobody won. I spent time thinking through a question I thought was important in the wrong way. My friend spent time listening – before she stopped listening – to something she wasn’t looking for.

But let’s get back to who was at fault. Who should take the responsibility in a situation like this one? What is one to do?

Have you heard of William Blake? He wrote a brilliant poem that I heard in yoga class the other day for the first time.

I felt angry towards my friend.
I told my wrath. My wrath did end.
I felt angry toward my foe.
I told him not. My wrath did grow.

When someone causes your feelings to go south, why do you hold it in? If they are intentionally doing what they are doing – that’s one thing. If they are unintentionally doing what they are doing, that’s another thing. How can they correct themselves if they don’t understand your rules?

As in any situation, without collective rule design, where everyone understands and is on the same page, chances are the rules will forever be yours, and little more. You will feel unbalanced and when your dancing partner realizes, s/he will feel unbalanced too. Is there anything better than a little extra communication to find the where you both meet in the middle?

Wow. All this text over one crazy conversation, eh? How about you? What are the toned-down examples of this in your life?

Deconstructing Ideas

This year I was lucky enough to get a chance to explore a subject often on my mind: people talking. That’s how I labeled the subject in my head, and it’s simple enough because it’s in my head, entangled with context, memories, feelings and past stories. Written down, or uttered outside my own head, it seems deceptively simple. People Talking.

By “people”, I had meant the people I know. Asians. Indonesians. People in their 20’s. Those who have a lot in their minds, sometimes with a lot to say, sometimes with very few.

By “talking”, I had meant “interaction”, which I later understood are two elements of a formula. Talking + Interaction = Dialogue. A talk without interaction is a monologue. Interaction without talking is nonverbal connection.

And because fascination with improvement is not the same as perfectionism, the types of Dialogues that I found interesting to explore are then scoped down to Constructive Dialogue.

If I’ve done a proper job explaining the term, you should be able to reinterpret this using *your* context, memories, feelings, etc. You may then feel like this idea is better labeled with another term, like “debate”, “chats”, or “intellectual discourse”, or “civic / political engagement”. All these definitions are accurate in their own rights, and I am genuinely looking forward to discussing these labels with anyone who wants to hash this out. It’s literally what I’ve been trying to do in the last 3 months: to start a conversation about conversations.

Anyway, the labels I’ve mentioned are what most people mention as alternative terms for Constructive Dialogue. But what about Arguments? I don’t mean argumentation in a debate setting, I mean confrontational, emotional argumentation. A fight, if you must. Is that considered constructive dialogue?

My first thought was this: Arguments are dialogues with intense emotions. My second thought was: man, arguments are the very definition of destructive dialogue. They literally break things – people, confidence, integrity, relationships, characters. How would you possibly see arguments as a constructive dialogue?

It’s not completely clear, but I’m thinking of the old saying: fights are healthy. We’re supposed to have them. It shows the relationship is working. I wish somebody can explain what this means. When I get into an argument, with anyone, I often feel crappy for a long time after. How is this healthy? Maybe it’s healthy if the people involved can manage their emotions. But if that’s the case, an argument is no longer a dialogue with intense emotions. Then again, though we are all told to manage our emotions better, what would humanity be like without anger, or tears, or screams? Can we honestly say it would be a better world?

Maybe for my next project, I should start a fight about fights.

Answering a Question with a Question


This past week, we had an enjoyable session with Professor Mikinari Higano on active learning. You might surmise from the title of this post that his class focused on questions.

Professor Higano is the founder and director of the Business Leadership Program at Rikkyo University, Tokyo, Japan. I love that when he’s not focused on the leadership art of asking questions he plays tennis, cooks Italian food, and travels around Europe.

I’ve always been a pretty big fan of questions. A previous version of myself liked to say things like, “questions are more important than answers.” And with all the conversation these days about the importance of questions, I’ve needed to re-examine how I view, think about, and formulate questions.

The exercise we went through with Professor Higano was smack in the middle of where the simple meets the complex. Basically, think of a question. A problematic question, that is. I urge you to try based on the same criteria we were given:

(1) It must directly affect you (e.g., problems that bother your friend only, no matter how serious they may be, are not appropriate for our purpose);

(2) You must be seeking a solution to the problem immediately (e.g., if you are looking to find a solution over a span of a year or longer, that problem wouldn’t be appropriate);

(3) You must feel comfortable sharing and discussing the problem with the other members (e.g., “having a hard time to find a good date” may be a serious problem and you might be seeking an immediate solution, but if you feel uncomfortable discussing such a topic with peers and teachers, that’s not appropriate);

(4) The problem’s solution must be within a reasonable reach; that is, the problem must not be too grandiose or big in scale (e.g., don’t say you’re looking for a solution to change a country or other similarly great problems of the world);

(5) At the same time, the problem must be complex enough so that you do not see an obvious solution (e.g., problems such as “I’m having a hard time to get out of the bed in the morning” or “I always find myself procrastinating while I’m at work” have obvious solutions and therefore, they are not appropriate); and

(6) Do not try to come up with “interesting” or “funny” problems. In fact, humorous problems discussing which makes it hard for the seminar attendants to keep straight faces have nothing but negative effects on the class.

Given the array of conditions noted above, you might as well wonder what problem is appropriate; nonetheless, most if not all people who are living serious lives do have lots of problems that are highly appropriate to bring. Such problems involve a number of stakeholders with various, maybe mutually contradictory interests (e.g., a solution may satisfy Person A, but it will upset Person B, etc.), and therefore, you are struggling to disentangle the problem and find the best solution.

If any of you are not sure if the problem you’re going to bring is proper or not, even after you read carefully my instructions and check your problem, you are welcome to ask me. It is important because the performance of the sessions, especially in the earlier phases, is affected by the properness of the problem.


I will likely share with you the question I chose in a future post, but, for the moment, really, take a moment and think about yours.


When we arrived in class, armed with our questions, only two of us actually had the chance to participate this time around. Going through the process, led by our table’s emerging expert facilitators, Anusha and Promotosh, we spent 50 minutes each to dissect the problem of two classmates.

I had two main takeaways:

The first – while I love asking questions, it can be hard to only ask questions in response to anything anyone says. Now, the problem presenters (as they were called) could share insight with us based on the questions we asked them, but the rest of us participants were required to use questions to move the discussion along.

And you know what? There was an interesting energy around the discussion that I had not quite considered before. Many people like to tell it how it is: to share their knowledge, their perspective, to give advice. And what if we did all that, by communicating this knowledge, perspective, or advice via a question?

The second – the first problem presenter lamented her lack of participation. She found it challenging to speak up, to ask questions, to be an active part of conversations, especially in larger groups. And she wanted to explore why.

Now, in the second session, I think her question was probably the most important question of the entire 50 minute discussion. While I can’t remember the exact question now, I do remember how I felt when she asked and the conversation shifted.

And now that we have the takeaways, where is the action involved?

1 – next time you are in a conversation, what would it be like to reformulate a follow-up comment into a follow-up question?

2 – in a small to larger group setting, by always keeping your questions inside, might you be depriving others the opportunity of hearing a conversation-altering question?


In searching images based on “answer a questions with a question”, I didn’t come up with much that struck me on Google images. Further exploring through a “question design” query, I made my way to something designed by Brandon Kauffman here on logogala.com. It looks like Brandon has more of his updated work on his self-addressed site here.