We all have opinions. All the time. About anything and everything. Opinions are, as they say, ‘a dime a dozen’. In our current hyper-connected world, they are more like ‘a dime a million’. This constant activity of assessing the people and situations we encounter is part of living and it’s part of how we shape our future together.
We can and do share our opinions, and our questions, our ideas, and even our mistakes, with others. However, when the social risk is too high, we often decide to hold back.
According to Harvard Business School faculty and researcher Dr Amy Edmondson, in her book The Fearless Organization:
For knowledge work to flourish, the workplace must be one where people feel able to share their knowledge. This means sharing concerns, questions, mistakes, and half-formed ideas. In most workplaces today, people are holding back far too often -- reluctant to ask or say something that might somehow make them look bad.
And I would add that sometimes people hold back for a long time and then ‘let fly’ unskillfully, as in this recent customer experience of two talented tech industry professionals with differing opinions [names changed]:
I am trying to concentrate on my coding when I overhear my teammates…
Casey: “Well, if you want the truth, that’s a pretty clumsy way to code that feature. My way is more straightforward and still satisfies the customer's requirement”.
The lighting and the furniture come into sharper focus as the rest of us start to come out of ‘the coding zone’ and tune in…
Jay: “No, your way doesn’t follow our design. It looks fast and easy right now, but in fact, it will build up the tech debt in this product and result in costly re-work down the track”.
Awkward silence. People nearby pick up on the increasing tension
Casey: “What design? We’ve got a tight deadline and we didn’t have time to waste on a lot of long, boring design sessions.”
Jay: “Maybe not, but we still have design principles. My solution follows them, and to be honest, yours doesn’t, so my way will be better in the long run”.
More heavy silence. Then
Casey: “I disagree. Once again, your solution will hold us up and we’ll all miss the deadline”.
And so on. Back and forth until one left the room saying they’d “had enough”.
Talking afterwards, a couple of us had wanted to jump in, but it was just too risky. Now we’re all wondering what’s next: will this escalate? or evaporate? Or most likely fester in silence? We all have a stake in the outcome: will it be lemons or lemonade?
This story makes me uncomfortable about the times I didn’t listen to the other person because I was so sure I was right. It reminds me of the hot prickle of guilt that emerged later, sometimes much later.
It only takes one or two episodes like this and pretty soon no-one feels safe to speak up. It’s sad to think about the enormous loss of energy and creativity as millions of versions of this conversation play out every day in workplaces the world over.
The very recent Australia Talks National Survey found that respect, and the need to show 1 each other more of it, is the topic that unites Australians the most. At VTeams, we have been discovering and developing practices that lay the foundations for a safer, more productive exchange of opinions, questions and ideas. One of these is “I can see why you might say that” or what we call“acknowledging the legitimate other”.
This is the practice of recognising that the other person’s actions are all that they currently have available to them: their way of being is not allowing any other behaviour to be available to them in that moment. In the example above the only behaviour available is that of forming and expressing opinions as though they are hard facts, as if they are ‘the truth’.
Acknowledging the “legitimate other” is a powerful move that helps me to put aside my judgments of the other’s character and personality. It makes room for me to become curious about their history and the experiences that might lie behind their opinions. It makes it safer to explore, both for me and for anyone listening to the conversation.
In practice, I make the move by responding: “Thanks, I can see why you might say that”.
Note: I’m not saying I agree with the other person, I’m not saying they are ‘right’, or that I’m ‘wrong’, and I’m not in any way ‘giving up’ on what I care about.
● I am affirming their right to form their own opinion.
● I am showing respect for them as a ‘legitimate other’ with their own unique history.
● I am generating a mood of genuine curiosity and inquiry.
And by taking the risk to speak up, I’m making it safer for others to speak up.
Some other forms: “That’s certainly one way to look at it”, “I understand that you’ve got your reasons for saying that”, “I can see how it’s possible to see it that way”, etc.
It’s not a technique for manipulation, it’s a mindset shift, an opening to co-invention.
In the conversation between Jay and Casey, with more skill, either one of them could, at any time, have made a move to make the other legitimate by saying “Thanks, I can see why you might say that”. This would open a mood of exploring possibilities for creating a shared future. And it would make the team a safer place for everyone.
For me, it’s about choosing to operate from a place where possibilities can arise. When we move to make the other person legitimate, we can go beyond holding our own opinions as the truth. We can expand our opportunities for influencing and being influenced, and for co-inventing productive futures.