· productivity

On Flexibility

I learned something important today. I had an idea to suggest to someone. But I wasn’t neutral about this idea. I had an agenda. I wanted this person to agree with my position so that we could implement my plan. I made my case, detailing all the reasons why I thought my argument made perfect sense. The feedback I got was generally supportive but several questions were raised, all of which I internally deemed to be irrelevant. I quickly became frustrated about these trivial concerns, which were slowing our progress and jeopardizing my precious proposal.

I realized afterward that this has been a recurring pattern in my life. You see, I don’t just come up with ideas – I fall in love with them. I do my homework - I work hard to make sure my thinking is clear and complete. And then I’m so persuaded by my conclusions that any criticism is perceived as an attack, and questions are a potential threat.

Passion is a good thing. Believing in yourself and your ideas is important. Caring enough to think things through carefully and thoughtfully, especially in the Attention Economy age, is commendable. But here’s where I go wrong: having a good plan is not the same thing as being right.

How many times in your life have you been wrong? How many times has someone opened your eyes to a different way of thinking about a problem or a different approach to a solution? It’s happened to me a lot. That’s because when you have an idea, regardless of how well fleshed out you think it is, it’s just a starting point. Ideas are like people, they evolve over time and in response to their environment. When first formed, your ideas are the product of exactly one person’s perspective. It may be great, but it can always benefit from additional sets of eyes and ears.

But it’s not enough to seek feedback. You have to be genuinely open to hearing it. If you’re so busy thinking about counterarguments, or why this person is missing the point, then why even bother getting their input to begin with? You’ve already made up your mind. If you really want someone’s feedback, you have to actually listen to it.

That’s easier said than done for me. Intellectually, I get it. But when I’m excited about my new pet idea, it’s no fun hearing about perceived shortcomings or reasons why it might not work. How do I put this zen-like ideal into practice when my idea is so good and this person just doesn’t seem to get it?

I’ve struggled with this for a long time and I think I’ve finally found the answer. Here it is:

Keep your mouth shut.

When you ask someone their opinion, let them give it to you and don’t respond with any sentence that starts with the word “But”. The only acceptable responses should come from this family:

The idea here is to consider this a chance to get someone else’s perspective, not to have a debate, not to negotiate a deal. If the feedback is not what you expected, just take it in, go away and think it over. If you still think your idea has merit, and you alone are responsible for its implementation, then just do what you want to do. You don’t need to convert that person to your point of view.

If you have to collaborate with others, then after you’ve listened to feedback from people you trust, arrange a second conversation, a day or more later, to focus on reconciling differences of opinion. After some time has passed, you’ll have moved from an emotional reaction to a more measured thoughtful place.

If you can adopt this strategy, you’ll not only open your mind to better solutions to your problems - people will like you and like working with you more.