“What a stupid idea!” your mind screams as you listen to your colleague. “It will never work.”
How can you be honest and respectful at this moment?
Saying, “That´s a stupid idea,” is disrespectful.
Saying, “That’s an interesting idea,” is dishonest.
When you are offered two equally bad alternatives, choose a third.
My three-year old wouldn´t eat broccoli.
Me: “Why don´t you like it, Michi?”
My daughter: “Because it’s yucky!”
Me: “But I like broccoli.”
My daughter: “Why do you like yucky things, daddy?”
Michelle thinks she doesn´t like broccoli because it’s yucky. But broccoli is not yucky. She calls it “yucky” because she doesn´t like it. When you are three, this is cute. When you are forty-three, it’s dangerous.
Many people have forty years of experience in being three.
Jean Piaget studied how human beings grow up. He tested children through a block painted green on one side and red on the other. Facing the child, he held the block between them with the green side pointed toward him and the red side pointed toward the child. When he asked, “What color do you see?” the child always answered, “red.” Then Piaget asked, “What color do I see?”
Most children younger than 5 years old answered, “red.” They were incapable of recognizing that other would see something different from them. Older children gave the correct answer. They understood that while they saw red, Piaget saw green. They demonstrated a sense of perspective, the ability to appreciate another’s point of view. Many so-called grownups have never developed this skill.
An adult child never questions his perspective. He’s right, and whoever disagrees with him is wrong. It’s his way or the highway. If he doesn´t like broccoli, it is because broccoli, as a matter of fact, is yucky!
Before you accuse me
When was the last time you met an idiot who thought exactly like you? Do you believe he disagrees with you because he’s an idiot? Or do you call him “idiot” because he disagrees with you?
No idea is stupid. “Stupid” is an arrogant opinion, an unskillful way of expressing that you don´t like the idea. Maybe you don´t understand it, maybe you have contradictory evidence, or maybe it derails a cherished plan. Whatever the reason, you can be sure that its proponent does not think the idea is stupid.
The opposite of arrogance is humility (from the Latin “humus,” meaning ground.) A humble person does not place himself above others; he does not pretend to hold a privileged position. Humility is the acknowledgment that you do not have a special claim on reality or truth, that others have equally valid perspectives deserving respect and consideration.
There are many ways to look at the world, and each way has its bright and its blind spots. Only humility can integrate diverse perspectives into an inclusive view. Humility makes sense intellectually, but it is not our natural attitude. It requires, at least, the cognitive development of a six-year-old.
Safe Language, Dangerous Language
Arrogant opinions are expressed as objective facts. That is, in the second (you), third (he, she, it), and plural (we, you all, they) persons. They intrude into the mental space of your counterpart. I call them “dangerous” because they come across as aggressive, trigger defensiveness and create conflict.
“You are wrong!”
“This is crazy!”
“It´s a mistake!”
“We need to move on!”
“You shouldn´t do it!”
Notice the difference with,
“I don´t understand.”
“I am afraid of the consequences.”
“I feel impatient.”
“I would prefer you not do it.”
Humble opinions are expressed as subjective interpretations. That is, in the first person (I). They respect your counterpart’s mind. I call them “safe” because they come across as constructive, invite dialogue and set the stage to resolve conflict.
When stakes are high, we are prone to use dangerous language. It is precisely in these conversations where safe language is most needed.
I worked with a product development manager who was very upset with his boss. “She doesn´t understand!” he complained. “We must take action now or we’ll miss our window. She is so closed, she doesn´t want to listen to reason.”
I challenged him, “I don´t know what she thinks or how she is, but if you told me that I don´t understand and we must take action now, otherwise I am closed and don´t want to listen to reason, I would consider you an arrogant jerk who is using strong-arm tactics to intimidate me into doing something that doesn´t feel right to me.”
She is not closed, he is not a jerk; they are both struggling to grow up.
In a previous post, I argued that you must prove you are listening. But listening is not enough. Effective communication demands that you speak respectfully as well.
Do you express your opinions in “I” or “you” form? Let me know below.
We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.” Anais Nin
Fred Kofman, PhD. in Economics, is Professor of Leadership and Coaching at the Conscious Business Center of the University Francisco Marroquín and a faculty member of Lean In. He is the author of Conscious Business, How to Build Value Through Values (also available as an audio program).
Photo: Tatiana Gladskikh/123RF