The “What Happened” Conversation

In the “What Happened” Conversation, people struggle over “who’s right, who meant what, and who’s to blame.”  As the authors of Difficult Conversations point out, crippling assumptions about truth, intentions and blame hinder our ability to have a learning conversation.  They note that “what happened” conversations are based on the idea that “I am right and you are wrong”; yet, “difficult conversations are almost never about getting the facts right.  They are about conflicting perceptions, interpretations, and values….They are not about what is true, they are about what is important.”  If we can shift conversations away from proving we are right, we can begin to understand the perceptions, interpretations, and values of both sides” (Difficult Conversations 9-10).

12341m_38e2f80bfb6b15e447dea301d1e86dbe-1I think there is something basically counter intuitive yet important about changing the conversation from “who’s right” to  what are the differences in perceptions, interpretations, and values when it comes to understanding competing histories.  Surely the goal of history is to tell the truth?  In her book Not Out Of Africa: How “Afrocentrism” Became An Excuse To Teach Myth As History, Mary Leftkowitz for example argues that we need to separate out the “myths” propagated by heritage-centered history writing from real history.  Yet, in the process she ignores the fact that Afrocentrists don’t just disagree with the “facts” of history but the value of Western historiography and the standard methods it employs.  As Martin Bernal insightfully notes in his review of Not Out of Africa, there are two “characteristics which, interestingly, Lefkowitz shares with the extreme Afro-centrists. The first is her conviction that she possesses a general truth that allows her to be cavalier over specifics. The second is that she and her allies feel besieged and obliged therefore on occasion to abandon the niceties of academic debate.”  That is, they are having a “What Happened” Conversation.

Here is a summary of the Assumptions and Goals made in The “What Happened?” Conversation (Difficult Conversations 18-19; reproduced in html by  The goal is to get from  the “battle of messages” to the “learning conversation”:

Conversation A Battle of Messages A Learning Conversation
The “What Happened?” conversation.Challenge: The situation is more complex than either person can see Assumption: I know all I need to know to understand what happened
Goal: persuade them I’m right
Assumption: Each of us is bringing different information and perceptions to the table; there are likely to be important things that each of us doesn’t know.
: Explore each other’s stories: how we understand the situation and why.
Assumption: I know what they intended
: Let them know what they did was wrong
Assumption: I know what I intended, and the impact their actions had on me. I don’t and can’t know what’s in their head.
: Share the impact on me, and find out what they were thinking. Also find out what impact I’m having on them.
Assumption: It’s all their fault. (Or it’s all my fault.) Goal: Get them to admit blame and take responsibility for making amends. Assumption: We have probably both contributed to this mess.
: Understand the contribution system; how our actions interact to produce this result.

Exercise:  Have students read

  1. Martin Bernal, “The Image of Ancient Greece as a Tool for Colonialism and European Hegemony”  In Social Construction of the Past: Representation as Power, G.C. Bond and A. Gilliam (eds.), (London and New York 1994) 119-28. AND
  2. Either Mary Leftkowitz’s “Not Out of Africa: The Origins of Greece and the illusions of Afrocentrists” The New Republic Feb. 10, 1992, pages 29-36 OR the introduction to Mary Lefkowitz’s  Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History AND
  3. Either Martin Bernal’s Review of Lefkowitz, Not Out of Africa, in Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.4.5 OR Martin Bernal’s “Whose Greece?London Review of Books Vol. 18 No. 24 · 12 December 1996 pages 17-18

In my experience students are unlikely to have the resources be able to take a stand on the “facts” of the case, but that’s ok, because in this exercise that isn’t the point!  Ask students to use the table above and highlight where the various assumptions listed above are being made, how each side contributes to the miscommunications, and what the actual stories are for each side.

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