Applying Systems Thinking and
Common Archetypes to Organizational Issues

Module 5: Mental Models and Productive Conversation

Left-Hand Column Cases

Left-hand column cases are a tool for discovering how our unspoken thoughts and feelings contribute to the outcome of our conversations. You can use this technique to reflect on past conversations or to prepare for future conversations.

A left-hand column case consists of two views of a conversation: on the right side, the dialogue is recorded; on the left side, the unstated thoughts and feelings of the case author are noted.


Background: Bill is John's boss and is not satisfied with John's performance. He has tried to raise issues about John's performance before, but doesn't think that John understands his concerns or feedback. Here is another of Bill's attempts to work through the issue of John's performance, but Bill does not get the results he intended.

(Bill's) Unspoken Thoughts & Feelings

What Was Said

Here I go again. I wonder how he feels? Well, it has to be done.

Bill: John, we have talked many times about the important role you play as our National Marketing Manager. I am still concerned about the issue that being a good technician is not enough for you to do this job well.

John: I work hard to keep good control over the area for which I am responsible.

The truth is that he is working from the top of the pile.

Bill: What do you mean by "control?" Is control the real problem? Are you consciously establishing priorities, or just working from the top of the pile?

I've heard this before and it's just not good enough.

John: As we get more involved with field people, I have less and less time. You realize, I'm sure, that the pressures of this job have increased, and I am working very hard.



The case highlights the following common dilemmas:

  • If I don't say anything, the issue doesn't get resolved; but
  • If I do raise the issue, it may make things worse.
  • If I bring up conflict, it may destroy the relationship; but
  • If I'm not honest, the relationship will eventually die.
  • If I don't ask questions, I don't learn; but
  • If I do ask questions, I may look stupid.

The following characteristics are very common in conversations about difficult or complex issues:

  • Much of what people think or feel most strongly about does not get spoken.
  • Each assumes they are acting rationally while others are not.
  • Each person creates his or her own private explanations of the situation, none of which are discussed.

As a result:

  • Opportunities for personal and team learning are reduced dramatically.
  • Issues remain unresolved.
  • Our beliefs and assumptions become institutionalized (in defensive routines).
  • A culture of non-learning is created.

Some people seem to avoid the use of these cases because they assume that the lesson is that you should always share your left-hand column. This is certainly not a recommendation. As we have noted with the reinforcing nature of mental models, the left-hand column is a personal resource for understanding how our own behavior is contributing to unproductive conversations and relationships.

Using Left-Hand Column Cases

After preparing a case, you can choose any point in the case and "re-craft" it. Are there other actions that might have produced better results? Is there a way your thinking could change or be shared to help produce different results? The re-crafting process is usually easiest with the help of a partner.

You can create a series of cases to track how the quality of your conversations is changing over time and areas where you still need to improve your skill.

You can create a case in anticipation of a difficult conversation to prepare possible responses to the types of dialogue you find most challenging.

During a conversation, you can use your left-hand column to surface and test your mental models. In particular when you notice that you are questioning the intentions of the other party, you can ask yourself to assume that the other is proceeding with good intent.

You can also share the dilemmas or binds you're experiencing as a way to help the other party understand your intentions and situation.

Detailed guidelines for constructing a case appear in the following optional exercise.