Self-Conversations: What You Can Learn from the Movie "Cast Away"

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Recently, one of the CEOs I coach brought me up short, asking: "Do we ever urge professionals and workers to talk to themselves? Is it in fact teachable, trainable? Could you help me be good with such self-conversations?"

I was puzzled: "What brought that up? I know you and your spouse are heavy into meditation but that usually leads to silence, not talk. What do you have in mind? "

The CEO responded, "I recently saw the film "Cast Away," with Tom

Hanks. He finds a volleyball among the debris washed ashore on a deserted island. It looks like a face. He decides to call it Wilson after the manufacturer’s name on the ball and proceeds to have regular conversations with Wilson.

"I think this arrangement saved his sanity. In fact, when he is on his precarious raft trying to find land or a ship, the ball is swept overboard. Hanks jeopardizes his life swimming after it. But it drifts away, and is gone forever. Wilson is lost, but the castaway is saved.

"Clearly, Wilson functioned as a way for Hanks to maintain human contact and conversation. We know it was an active dialogue because Wilson’s answers appear in the responses of Hanks. In other words, Hanks not only preserved Wilson’s half of the exchange, but also Wilson’s evolving character--his difference, disagreements, and dissension—supported the relationship.

"I found the exchange enervating," continued the CEO. "It did not just offer companionship—it offered the relationship of difference. It was an authentic voice because although familiar it did not obediently mirror one’s own. Through that dialectic, it helped Hanks not only to communicate but also to make critical decisions.

"And that is when it struck me. Can self- dialogue serve as a metaphor and model for business and professional exchange? Can it help me?"

I hesitated. I had never been asked to do this before. So I stalled and went pompous and professorial: "Dialogue, internal or external, is at the heart of the give-and-take of making decisions."

The CEO quickly seized on this new thread, "That is exactly what I mean. I find it fascinating by professionals who talk their way through their work. Sometimes it is quiet, other times overt. In a number of cases, it frequently takes place in front of a client or colleague. ‘Let me see, you want to get this done, fast. Let me try this first; and if that does not work I have a few other aces up my sleeve.’"

"If the customer or listener is smart, he will sit back quietly and listen to the problem solving process make its clever and circuitous way to a solution. The role of the listener is passive. The self-talker becomes a problem solver. He may ask a few questions along the way to refine and focus the problem but that’s all.

"The listener sits back and follows the dialogue, as he observes the way this particular problem solver thinks and in fact problem solves. Although the solution obviously is the bottom line, observing the workings of a mind in a self-relationship with itself is an equally absorbing and revealing process. Getting there becomes as important as arriving there.

The coach joins in: "I think I now have a better idea of what you are talking about. Self-dialogue does not require an external, but an internal partner. It also tends to be exploratory and even affectionate. I know many people who have conversations with their pets; with favored inanimate objects or paintings or sculpture which they touch. Some talk back to the radio or TV. If viewers are really angry or annoyed they click off or switch to another channel usually accompanied by a few well chosen exclamations. And the favored partner—your car.

"But most important it can serve as a prelude to deciding on a course of action. Leaders may initiate a dialogue in their heads, set up in advance the desired outcomes and then call in the warring opposites, one always stressing the downside, the other the upside-- two different Wilsons as it were.

"The dialogue of self-relationship then becomes a balancing act until enough accumulates to make a decision or to postpone it for another dialogue. Many CEOs pay handsomely for the external version of this kind of dialogue in the form of executive coaches or trusted advisors.

"But you are right. Although there appears to be considerable value to the exchange, it is seldom acknowledged officially as a way of knowing. As a result, it is seldom taught, inculcated and above all designed as a managerial tool. The structuring of dialectic self-relationships thus may improve problem solving, communication, decision making and even strategic planning.

The CEO concluded, "OK, that is your assignment: to design a training program focused on dialectic self-relationships and applications."

He left pleased as punch. I was in a funk. Once more he had delegated or dumped a task on me. That is bad enough— but in this case one for which there was no known model. Did he know that? Diabolically or intuitively? Makes no difference. I had to solve the problem. I decided to practice what I preach and called upon my Alter Ego to dialogue and assist me in my task.

He arrived and brusquely announced: "Cease and desist! You are way ahead of yourself. You can’t design an effective dialogue training program without first identifying the laws of effective dialogue," he said.

I asked, "Why do I have the feeling you will tell us what they are?

"Naturally, all we have to do is to turn our internal conversations inside out and determine what governs them. There are three:

1. Ego Driven Outcomes

For the dialogue and self-relationship to be effective ego must be purged. Hot buttons and blind spots must be confessed, hobby horses stilled, deflective ego hide-away escape hatches shut down.

True self-image, with all its blemishes and warts, must emerge if the dialogue is to stand a chance of being 180 let alone 360. Hugging and protecting your fragile ego compromises flow and change.

2. Three Decisions

"Every decision or solution must be rendered as three decisions: the decision to do something, the decision as to how it will be communicated and the decision on how it will be implemented.

"The dialogue must engage all three dimensions. Moreover, just as the decision making process involved alterative options, so now the same process must now be extended to accommodate the best ways to communicate and implement the decision.

"Thus, the dialectic process is circular and bestows its configuration on the decision itself as well as its communication and implementation. Dialogue also creates a check and balance system. If the decision poses major problems of communication and/or of implementation, it must go back to the drawing board. The solution has been found to be a problem. It is a boomerang. The gods of communication and implementation must be satisfied. The decision fails its projected tests.

"The dialogue must go back to square one. A new decision must be found that can function in all the key dimensions of the real world and its cast of characters. Otherwise it will be still-born or worse create problems bigger, tougher and less repairable than the one that spawned the process in the first place. Dialogue is quality control—an infallible diagnostic.

3. The More Inclusive Manager

The entire process seeks not only to bring about more effective decisions and solutions, but also create more effective leaders and managers. The new manager, vivified, stretched and extended by the dialectic of dialogue, will be more inclusive, more balanced, more open, more diverse.

"Most communications are after the fact. Once decisions have been made, new polices formulated, acquisitions and mergers agreed upon—then communications specialists are called in to wordsmith the announcements. Communications is never involved or invited to play a direct and formative role in any of the initial processes only their final formulations.

"But often bad decisions are made, policies are inept, mergers questionable. When that regrettably happens, the temptation is to return to the same process that created the problem in the first place, try to be more diligent next time, and expect a different outcome.

"The manager has to argue for greater inclusiveness— for bringing communications and operations to the table from the outset as equal players to the decision makers. Dialogue is now a three-way process. As each possible decision is being formulated two tests are immediately performed. Can the essence and integrity of the decision be communicated without distortion, back firing or ambiguity?—ditto implementation? If the decision fails either or both tests it is regarded as fundamentally flawed and assigned to the junk pile. All three then go back to square one to generate a new three-way decision.

"The benefits of dialogue are ambitious. It not only can find and expose fundamental weaknesses in the system, but also identify its correctives. It establishes three-way dialoguing and thinking as the norm from the start. A wise and effective decision communicates superbly and implements flawlessly. As the film and the above demonstrate, although there may be many different ways to talk to and save oneself, dialogue is tyrannical:

  • It rejects the quick fix.
  • It is egoless.
  • It elevates and empowers its partners.
  • It is inclusive and perspectival.
  • It grows leaders.