I had a conversation the other day that gave me cause to think back on other conversations I’ve had, and in my mind, I constructed an imaginary conversation to test an idea I had about communication. During my thought process, I reached a weird dilemma that I wanted to share.

Let’s say we have two people brought together by circumstance who have everything to gain by working together and nothing to lose. They even have a strong desire to work together as a motivating force, and yet when they try, they run into problems.

Why do two people with every reason to work together still have problems working together? Everything we can see about this situation says they should be able to work together, what prevents them from succeeding? Let me give you some context.

Persona A and Persona B want to make decisions together. They’re both motivated by the desire to reach an outcome that pleases the other person. They both pitch their ideas, with Persona A providing the pros and cons of their idea, and Persona B providing their own. They discuss the ramifications of both choices together.

Somehow, the conversation devolves into a fight. What happened? I have a couple ideas, which start with the ideas of a faulty premise or a faulty execution.

First of all, it’s possible that while Persona A and Persona B have the same motivation (to please the other), they don’t actually know what the other person wants. It’s generally impossible to know another person’s thoughts, and it’s regrettably possible that a person doesn’t know their own thoughts, so here we have our first problem.

Persona A wants what Persona B wants, but doesn’t know what Persona B wants. They may assume to know based on prior experience (memory). They may assume to know based on circumstantial evidence (observation). They may assume to know based on similar interactions with other people (conventional wisdom). They may assume based on a number of factors related to the topic at hand (reasoning).

Any of those assumptions may fail, based on misapplication or faulty information. Persona A might remember an event differently from Persona B, or Persona A incorrectly remembers the event (interpreting it differently). Maybe both of them remember the related event the same way, but Persona B is trying a different approach. There are so many ways things can go wrong.

Beyond a faulty premise — that both people might be working toward different ends for the same purpose (to ensure the other’s happiness) — there’s the possibility that something changed during the discussion. That’s faulty execution — they fail to uphold or otherwise deviate from their original goal.

Maybe Persona A and Persona B both know what the other wants, but during the discussion, one of them misunderstood a statement or question and subsequently made an error in the next step of conversation. Even one small change might derail a conversation, depending on how sensitive the topic is to one or both people involved — and sensitivity is yet another concept.

This topic is … bigger than one post.