Is : Was : Could Be : Should Be

We humans are incredibly complex creatures when looked at as individuals - yet similar enough when looked at as an aggregated group to make some broad generalisations.

In my new MD role (ahhhhh ... yeeeessss ... NOW we understand why she's been too busy to post), I have a pretty far-ranging job spec - including ensuring that communication channels are established and working in a company. This means a lot of listening in to conversations and seeing where they're going wrong and WHY. You could say that a good part of my job is to eavesdrop - but I promise it's done for the forces of good.

Now, there was a rather interesting conversation going on a couple of days ago - it was actually during a lunch break and it wasn't really about work, but it's dynamics were such a perfect illustration of what can go really, really wrong in human interaction that I found myself thinking about it for a long time afterward.

Two people were talking about something. They didn't have opposing views on the topic, yet they almost had an argument about it. How?

Well, I have a theory and the theory comes about from a story...

:: IS

A while ago I came across a person who insisted on communicating in a completely one-dimensional way. No matter where a conversation went on any topic, he would always bring it back to how things were right now. So, for example, I would talk about the kind of political system I would like to see in Australia one day and he would keep coming back to what was in force at the time. I would talk about a business and what kind of strategy I saw for it in the future and he would keep reminding me what was in place at the moment. I would talk about the weekend, hoping for great weather - and he would look outside and comment on the current clouds - I think you all get the picture.

He couldn't actually fantasize, imagine or extrapolate to some future date and talk to me about something that wasn't concrete reality today.

He was so exceptional, so very consistently one-dimensional in his mode of communication, in fact, that I gave his mode a name ('Is'), and started to notice those times when other people did the same thing. Others (thankfully) didn't stay in just one mode, so I was able to differentiate four different modes in common conversation.

:: WAS

Some - especially those inclined toward an enjoyment of things historical - can consistently bring the conversation back to what 'was'. They have an absolute wealth of knowledge (usually detailed, including dates and names) of everything that has preceeded a certain event or time and are more than willing to share it at every opportunity. They add depth to any discussion by helping people understand what has come before to shape the reality of today.


This is the mode of thought and communication reserved for dreaming about something that isn't concrete reality now. Some people are really quite wonderful at imagining worlds, places, events and things that haven't happened and describing them in breathtaking detail. This is the mode of communication used by thinkers, philosophers, inventors and those politicians that still remember what they're paid for.


Moralizers are characterised by diverting to this mode of communication often. Everything comes back to what 'should be' according to their particular credo, code or belief system. I have to admit that I've been guilty of this one myself, especially when talking about philosophical or political matters.

So what happened during that lunch break that has anything to do with this? Simple - one person was in 'is' mode and the other was in 'should be'. The topic around which this conversation is centered isn't even important....the dynamic is all that matters:

Could be: You know, I was thinking - wouldn't it be wonderful if...[x]...??
Is: You can't do that.
Could be: What?
Is: You just can't, the necessary technology isn't available.
Could be: Yes, but it will be one day.
Is: But it's not available now.
Could be: Sure, I know that, but it would just be so cool...
Is: (technical reason for current impossibility)
Could be: That doesn't matter!
Is: Sure it does - it makes it impossible. nauseum (well, actually ad finitum luncheon).

Cue slighly growly end to conversation - for no particular reason other than the two people don't see they're just coming at the same idea from two different places and with two very different needs from the conversation. 'Is' just wants a confirmation that they're right, where 'could be' wants someone to bounce ideas off and perhaps a small pat on the head for thinking of them in the first place. (And before the comments go up - this is just a cartoon-like extrapolation of the gist of this conversation - both these people are highly, highly intelligent and express themselves rather more eloquently.)

I'm not sure if I'm right - there may be a better way of dividing up modes of communiation - but I've not yet found a better tool for understanding some of the pettier, sillier arguments that people have.

In the end, I think it's healthy (and SO much more interesting) for a person to be able to smoothly and frequently switch between these modes when conversing. In fact, I do wonder if it's one of the ways to consciously become a more interesting person and a far better communicator. Certainly, understanding these modes has helped me to avoid silly disputes over - quite literally - nothing.

I realise that this isn't my usual posting fare, but it's what's taking up a lot of my thought processes once more and I'll keep sharing it in a general manner in the hope that some people find it interesting.


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