Just the Facts, Ma'am

In my version of Right Mind — what we have to do to engage and avoid conflict — another useful skill is


Telling it like it is. Seeing it clearly. Applying the No Blame Frame. Giving just the facts, ma’am.

I think of Columbo, the star of a very popular TV show I watched when I was growing up. Columbo was a really persistent (and apparently bumbling and hence quite annoying) detective who always nailed the perp. He did his job by being (or at least acting) unabashedly curious. “I’m just wondering,” he would say. Or he’d apologize for forgetting a detail and ask a few more questions so he could get it straight. “I’m sorry to bother you, ma’am — but I’m curious….” And he’d ask his suspect to describe what happened one more time.

Of course, Columbo was looking for guilt. He was doing criminal forensics. When we want to engage without devolving into conflict, we’re looking for understanding and points of connection.

We’re doing relational forensics.

Which means we have to be unabashedly and persistently curious to discern what the facts of an interaction are.

Two good places to start are

  • your own emotions

and your observations of

  • your own and others’ behavior.

Labeling your emotions (as mentioned in Right Mind) is one way of describing the facts of an interaction. Your emotions are very useful data. (If you don’t remember why, re-read The First Trick.)

Describing what just happened — what you saw, what people did — is another source of relational data. This can be very difficult for at least these reasons:

  • Our perceptions are already biased (we see what we want to see).

  • We tend not to question our assumptions.

  • Backing out of automatic interpretations takes effort and discipline.

  • We forget to ask questions before making judgments.

  • Describing requires detachment, and it can be super difficult to detach when we are activated and afraid.

I suggest it is these bullet items that lead us into conflict. Reversing these tendencies — being unabashedly and persistently curious about the facts, ma’am — leads us to engagement.

Betsy BurrisComment