How to use the What Happened Method?

“Professional” is supposed to mean that we put aside biases, judgments, opinions, and other prejudices and analyze things with some objectivity. And the “What happened?” method is a tool that assists us in doing exactly that — it helps us to remove everything from our communication except what we could have observed with the five senses. You say what happened, not what you thought or felt about what happened, or your opinion, either. As we know opinions beget opinions, and soon things get off track.

Following this method takes a tremendous amount of discipline. The tendency to slip into interpretation and then judgment is almost as automatic as breathing. While we may feel it’s necessary to express our interpretations and judgments, we are advised to put them aside for the time-being because, in fact, all they achieve is to cloud our own and others’ perspective on what happened.

This moves our communication toward more clarity and utility.

For example, Robert has to report about Ellen’s performance. He has noticed that she’s often late, doesn’t precisely follow instructions, and actually submits confusing information when given multiple tasks. In his report, he states that “Ellen obviously doesn’t care about the job, and must simply not be paying attention because of the quality of her work. Clearly, she’s not behind the vision.”

That’s not a What happened? report. It’s laden with his own judgments, which do not leave room for the interpretation of others as they hear the facts.

If he had simply noted that her work is often incorrect and she seems to struggle with multiple tasks, there would be less information for others to sort through — and more room for constructive questions, such as: “Is she being given too much work? Has she been thoroughly trained?” and so forth.

Key points to remember:

  • Tell what happened according to the five senses. If you can’t hear it, taste it, smell it, touch it, and/or see it, then it didn’t happen.
  • Take out all interpretations, opinions, judgments, statements of feeling, and anything else that the “What happened?” camera would not be able to see.
  • No morals or lessons learned. Those do not belong in the story. Let your listeners be free to make up their own moral or lesson.
  • Trust your listeners’ ability to understand your message, thanks to your description of what happened to you.
  • This method takes discipline and practice. Keep at it. It will pay off.
  • The goal of your story is to connect with your listeners. Saying what happened allows for that connection to happen. If your listeners have questions or want to start a dialogue or even tell their own story after you’ve said what happened to you, then you know you’ve connected.

When to use the “What happened?” camera:

  • Every time you’ve determined that a story is the most appropriate way to communicate your message, then your story should answer the question “What happened?”
  • If you are in a meeting, whether in a group or one-on-one, where emotions are running high because someone is upset about something (or you are), ask “What happened?” to cut through the fog of emotions and get to the heart of the matter. The details you bring up by asking “What happened?” can be acted on as a source of solutions to situations that you may have found challenging to deal with in the past.
  • When you find yourself stuck in front of a blank page or don’t know where to go next in a conversation with someone, say what happened next. Think about the actions you took, what was said to you, what you said to others, and you will move forward.

Remember that this method takes practice. Lots of practice. Please do not be discouraged at the outset when our habits of relating experience through a complex mixture of interpretation, opinion, and judgment get in the way. Slow down and enjoy reflecting on the details of what happened. It can be refreshing. And revealing. For sure, you will only get better by trying it out with others.

See how your stories land with others when you tell what happened. Receive their listening and see how it impacts your listeners when you tell them your story in this way.

Here are a few more scenarios in which “What happened?” can help move the needle toward your goals.

A company changes management, going from two leaders to one and a restructuring period that leads to layoffs of 30 percent of the staff. A leader can use “What happened?” to tell the story of the breakup and rationale for change, being specific about what is changing and what impact it will have on the company. Telling what happened is about facing facts and not straying from them, which is critical when navigating change.

Use “What happened?” as a way to move away from the dryness of the features of the products you’re selling. Customers can find all that in the product manual. Instead, describe what the products do for people. Tell what happened when the product is in someone’s home or office.

Team collaboration
When we worked with the design group of a large tech company, we gathered teams of engineers, product managers, and designers together to create “What happened?” stories that transformed ideas into pitch presentations.

The teams were not accustomed to collaborating on presenting to the COO and CEO their latest ideas. Instead, they were used to working on building a prototype for months, working individually, and coming together only a few days before pitching. The new head of the design group felt this was wasteful and that there should be a way to present ideas early without having to build a version of the product.

In the long run, “What happened?” becomes a kind of mental discipline. It reminds us to keep things simple and to the point, to stick to the facts. So many participants in our workshops tell us how much more focused and directed they’ve become as presenters or in their speech in general as a result of practicing this method.

More than anything else, it familiarizes us with our tendency toward judgment, opinion, and commentary. We might be surprised to notice that when relating an event, say, or how one coworker behaves, we are often talking entirely from opinion and judgment! Gently returning to “What happened?” allows us to see things clearly again. The more we do, the more our greater intelligence comes through. Who doesn’t benefit from that perspective? You and your audience certainly will.

Interesting reads:


  1. This one is interesting because everything that you pointed out actually makes perfect sense. I did not notice that I also had this attitude of being biased with my opinions until I read this article. Haha.

    Liked by 1 person

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