When you’re the boss, you can always fall back on the power of your position to impose your perspective as the right one, but that can create feelings of frustration and even resentment in your people. Imagine how you feel when your own boss refuses to hear your perspective. It doesn’t feel good, but you probably chalk it up to the nature of organizational life.
The most difficult, however, may be when you’re among your peers in a team meeting and you feel like you’re doing battle with people who just don’t get it. You keep making the best arguments you can but it feels like they just keep getting more entrenched in their perspective. It can feel incredibly dispiriting and it can feel like you’re failing at what you need to accomplish.
There is a solution to this dilemma. It’s an exceedingly simple solution, but it’s also counterintuitive, and for many executives, exceptionally difficult.
In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.– Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
Let go of being right.
When you are right, and others disagree, you suddenly find yourself on a singular path: proving you’re right. This same path includes the inverse, proving others wrong, which is essentially the same thing, except a whole lot more brutal in practice.
It’s counterintuitive, but the solution is to let go of being right and to let go of making others wrong. Simply let it go. I don’t mean give up, pack up your toys and go home. I mean let go of being right so you can occupy a very different space. Remember the question: what does it feel like to be right? It feels like certainty. It feels like righteousness. It feels closed.
The opposite of those feelings are curiosity, humility, and openness. When you let go of the certainty of being right, you can be curious, humble and open. From that place, more paths open up to you. You no longer have to prove you’re right, or that others are wrong. No longer feeling that you have to defend your “right” position, you can engage in an open dialogue with others, listen to understand a perspective different from your own, and not feel you have to prove it wrong.
If your original perspective was truly the “right” perspective, it’s very possible an open dialogue will come back around to that perspective, this time with more people seeing it. If somehow you turn out to have been wrong, then isn’t it a good thing you didn’t die on your sword defending your position? Most likely, what emerges from open dialogue is a new perspective held by a larger number of people. It’s not “I was right, you were wrong,” but rather: “we now have a better shared understanding from which we can find agreement and move forward.”
It’s a Temporary but Necessary Step
This simple solution is so difficult for most executives because it feels like giving up control. Their job is to make good decisions and drive toward the right outcomes, and letting go of being right feels like surrender. It feels like failure.
To get past this, you need to reframe this letting go as a necessary step in the process. You can see it as only temporary. Remember, your goal is –– or at least should be –– for the right perspective to be shared by enough people so that it gets adopted. Your goal should not be that your perspective gets adopted. See that difference? If you can remember that, then you can let go of needing to be right and needing others to be wrong. Then, and only then, can you engage in open dialgoue.
Engage in Open Dialogue with Inquiry
Open dialogue is characterized by inquiry, rather than advocacy. Inquiring is what you do when you’re curious, when you want to know more. It looks like asking questions and listening. Advocating is what you do when you’ve adopted a position and are trying to convince others to adopt the same position. It looks like statements and arguments. Both advocacy and inquiry are critical tools for any executive. Advocacy tends to come most naturally, while inquiry often gets overlooked when it’s most needed. When you have a group of smart people butting heads over who’s right and who’s wrong, inquiry is what’s needed. This kind of inquiry and open dialogue can take as little as a few minutes, or days or more if that’s what’s needed. Decisions still need to get made. Skilled open dialogue is intended to get to the right decisions more of the time.
To sum up, when you feel that familiar frustration of needing to convince others to see what apparently only you can see, it’s time to let go of that need to be right and move into inquiry and open dialogue. It’s only temporary. Get genuinely curious about other perspectives. Forget about whether you agree with it and simply try to understand. Demonstrate it with your questions and real listening. By doing this, you are creating the circumstance in which shared understanding can emerge. It may not be immediate agreement, but it’s a far better place from which to seek agreement than where you were to begin with. Try it. You may be surprised at how powerful it is.