Mark the level of conversation you want to have

Have you ever shared a big picture idea only to have a colleague respond with "what about [tiny detail]?"

Or perhaps the opposite: as you untangle a practical, present issue, the conversation gets hijacked by a long-term plan or idealistic vision.

If so, you'll find this collaboration tip adapted from Ray Dalio helpful: mark the level of conversation you want to have.

Are we talking about the big picture?

Down in the weeds?

(Somewhere in between?)

It's not apparent but immensely useful to know.

Each level of conversation benefits from different ways of thinking that are easily frustrated by higher-up or lower-down concerns.

Here's the problem: no one tends to recognize what level they're speaking from, let alone where others are speaking from. So discussion leaps and dives like a rollercoaster leaving everyone with a bit of mental whiplash.

Taking a tiny extra step – to verbally communicate the intended level of conversation – resolves so many unnecessary conflicts.

Three levels of conversations
Addendum: Conversation Map Legend

Galaxy-level conversations explore visions and ideas that may take generations to reach, never be realized, or disrupt everything next year. These kinds of conversations are best kept:

  • Expansive: seeks out rabbit trails and new connections instead of deciding on The Right Way.
  • Loose: readily discards even good ideas to chase another that just now came to mind – nothing is “off-topic” and the conversation borders on recklessness.
  • Unstructured: resits forcing ideas into familiar, comfortable mental frameworks (although it may pick them up and drop them like a single-use test tube or test swab). Instead, these conversations let new ideas evolve into new, improved frameworks.
  • Risky: resists a feeling of safety or boredom – sure signals that a galaxy conversation is heading in the wrong direction (or, it might be time to take it to a lower level). Galaxy conversations are intoxicating and expansive by definition.

For more, read about how the future operates in a different kind of time.

Forrest-level conversations shape vague ideas into viable plans and preliminary designs; They define clear goals and set constraints for upcoming work. Successful conversations in this middle space are:

  • Targeted: moves ideas into a defined pursuit that can clearly be said to have succeeded or failed, not just been explored.
  • Emergent: finds patterns in multiple galaxy-level ideas to form a plan that just might actually work.
  • Bridging: holds a working understanding of the futuristic visions of what could be and the present detailed complexities of the way things are without discounting either side.
  • Judicious: knows where to put constraints around risks and rabbit trials and where to leave plenty of open space for novel interpretation and craftsmanship in the details.

For more, see creative work is like fighting a dragon up a hill.

Tree-level conversations are all about the present details of the actual work. It's where we build, edit, refine, and repair. Conversations down here are best kept:

  • Precise: leaves as little ambiguity as possible and only trust patterns that we can reliably repeat.
  • Structured: uses to-do lists, timelines, deadlines and other tools that wrangle something new into order.
  • Nurturing: respects the fragility of the current order of things and softens the impact of new changes accordingly.
  • Tenacious: patiently presses the work to completion to the very last obscure detail.

For more, see the past is never done.

Each month, I write a short essay about the Chaos Map:

Thank you. Stay tuned for an introduction email.
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