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Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Don't Argue with Sleepwalkers

Influencing people is always hard. It’s especially difficult when people are operating from a fixed set of ideas with no room for even the possibility of a different point of view—almost as if they’re sleepwalking.

I thought of this recently when a friend said, “One thing I’ve learned over a long life: don’t argue with drunks.” “No”, I replied without missing a beat, “and don’t argue with sleepwalkers, either.” My friend didn’t get that one, so I explained.

In my youth, I was married to a guy who walked and talked in his sleep. Several times, I woke suddenly alone in bed with the kitchen light shining in my eyes. Shocked awake, I’d find him at the kitchen table eating the breakfast he’d just cooked—having showered, shaved and dressed fully including jacket and tie, all of it while fast asleep. If I hadn’t looked at the clock and I’d failed to notice his slightly glassy eyes, it would have seemed like a normal morning scene.

He talked coherently in his sleep, too. When I asked what he was doing, he’d say he was eating his breakfast and getting ready to go to work. At first, I was flabbergasted. I’d blurt out, “But it’s the middle of the night!“ And he’d say, “No, it’s eight thirty. Would you like some eggs?” Then I’d argue. But the more I tried to get him to see reality, the more adamant he became, almost angry. I’d be afraid that any minute now he’d go out the door, get in the car and drive there. And his unyielding obstinacy and escalating emotion disconcerted me.

I knew nothing about sleepwalking, not even the myth that waking a sleepwalker was dangerous. I think sometimes I did manage to wake him. Mostly though, the only way I could see out of the impasse was to play along, to try to enter my husband’s sleeping reality and while there try to persuade him to take a different course of action. I might say, “But Sweetie, it’s a holiday today and we can sleep in. You can go back to bed!” Then he’d cheerfully do that, and in the morning he’d have forgotten the entire episode.

One snowy night, I found him stark naked opening the front door: “waiting for the people to come”. By then I knew what to say. “Oh…but they aren’t coming for a couple of hours yet. So you might as well come back to bed and be warm in the meantime.”

The thing about sleepwalkers, I learned (and sleep-talkers, too), is that they can’t see outside the single frame of reference they’re stuck in. Argument is worse than futile. It upsets or annoys the sleeper. But if you can enter the sleeper’s world, you can operate within it to achieve a mutually acceptable result.

I try to keep this in mind whenever I have to deal with a manager or client whom I perceive as particularly blinkered or fixed on a single—and to me, wrong-headed—course of action. Perhaps it’s stretching a point to suggest such people are sleepwalking, but the situation is analogous enough that similar techniques can help.

When my ex-husband walked in his sleep, I had to:

  • Remind myself to approach him calmly and patiently, however absurd or alarming the situation he was in.

  • Listen to him and find out where he was coming from—his current frame of reference.

  • Refrain from arguing, but instead enter his frame of reference and suggest a different course of action consistent with it.

Compare that with this Aikido sequence that I learned from Jerry Weinberg: centre, enter, turn. That is:

  • Centre (yourself). Breathe calmly and concentrate your energy in the centre of your body.

  • Enter (your opponent’s attack).

  • Turn (your opponent’s attack to your own advantage or in the direction you want to go).

You can only ever influence people by connecting with their reality. That may not be so obvious when the other person’s reality has built-in points of connection with your own. But when there’s a radical disconnect between the other person’s frame of reference and your own, and he or she is taking a fixed position, it’s helpful to remember the sleepwalking analogy.

Next time a project manager gets totally stuck on the notion that you should publish metrics you’ve explained will be meaningless and misleading, don’t persist and tell her what a silly idea you think it is. Instead, act as if she’s talking in her sleep. Listen quietly and carefully to what she wants and where she’s coming from. Try and enter her frame of reference. Then go away and think about how you might operate within that frame of reference and turn what she’s demanding into something useful to both of you: say, a report that gives her a meaningful measurement you can believe in and support.

Don’t argue with sleepwalkers.