Strong Opinions, Lightly Held

People TalkingWhat’s the key to turning a difficult conversation into a productive one? Years ago I studied with the people at Action Design–exploring this exact question. How do you have a productive conversation based on honesty, trust and transparency? How can you transform difficult conversations into opportunities for learning and understanding? The phrase “strong opinions, lightly held,” is a reminder for me of how to enter into a conversation that is difficult–or how to respond when a conversation becomes challenging.

“Strong opinions, lightly held” connects to one of the most powerful and practical distinctions I’ve ever learned–between advocacy and inquiry. Advocacy is about speaking up and inquiry is about asking questions–seeking to understand. Inquiry is about curiosity, listening and asking. While the benefits of inquiry are probably the subject of much of the leadership development work you’ve done–perhaps because it’s not all easy be an expert “inquirer”–advocacy is also important. Having a voice, expressing a view and being able to effectively express ideas is critical to effective leadership.

Expressing your view (strong opinions) while knowing that your view is just one view–and being willing to open your view up to inquiry by others (lightly held)–is one of the keys to productive, powerful conversations–and leadership. It’s one of the primary ways that difficult can become productive–and positive. Advocacy and inquiry are a polarity–both are critical, it’s not an either/or. Our work is to leverage the positive aspects of each–to speak up and also be willing to ask, to listen and also be willing to let go.

Living into “strong opinions, lightly held” is the work of a lifetime–a journey, not a destination. In recent years there’s been a host of research about our brains that demonstrates–over and over–that we are wired to crave certainty–to want to believe that we know, that we are right. (See On Being Certain by Robert Burton.) That need for certainty creates in us a false sense of knowing that blinds us to the fact that we might just be wrong. The need for certainty–and its corollary–the need to be right, ultimately get in our way, doing a disservice to the people around us, and preventing our organizations from thriving. It is part of why advocacy, rooted in a sense of knowing, can come so much more easily than inquiry. Inquiry requires that we be comfortable with not being certain that we are right, with being willing to hold open the possibility that we are the ones missing something.

It’s a hard thing to shift. We can begin by noticing when we’re holding a view tightly, when we are not asking questions or have ceased to be curious. We can notice when we are not allowing questions to be asked or making space for others to speak up. We can listen to ourselves when we say (or think) “we know” and check to see if it is really true. We can try on the language of “I believe” vs. “I know” and see what happens.

As we notice and as we make small shifts, we can work to become leaders who are clear rather than leaders who are certain, leaders for whom “strong opinions, lightly held” is an aspiration–one we are always moving towards. We can practice in every conversation. 

Updated, June, 2018.

 

 

 

A Medley of Resources

For the past few months I’ve been writing posts for Actionable—the same organization that also creates wonderful (and numerous) book summaries—including twenty or so that I’ve authored. While my original intention was to write posts both here and for Actionable—those posts have ended up being my focus. It’s been wonderful to have an editor and a schedule! So, this post is a placeholder whose purpose is to point you in the direction of the these resources.

Here’s my post about complexity. It expands on what I’ve shared on these pages. Working with complexity is a requirement in a world of VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.)

And here’s a post that explored polarity management. This is the tool in my toolkit that I find most meaningful these days (and is another way to manage complexity.)

My post about the distinction between assessments (opinions) and assertions (facts) was written on November 10. I really appreciated having an editor with the wisdom to notch it down a bit and still keep it relevant to the unique moment we are in.

Finally, here’s my latest post–one of the most personal and simultaneously most practical I’ve written. It explores the topic of listening–a skill that is at the very core of what effective leaders do. I share a practice that is now becoming a habit for me—which I call “the pause.”

And, here are links to the summaries I’ve written for Actionable Books in the last couple of years. They are listed in the order that they appeared. Kegan’s An Everyone Culture and Laloux’s Reinventing Organizations are particularly provocative. Haber’s Business of Good is inspiring. Duhigg’s new book on productivity and Halvorson’s book on biases continue to shed light on how we can be more effective in our day-to-day lives.

 

Becoming a Thinking (and Listening) Partner

Two people communicating by telepathy. Digital illustration.

The quality of your attention determines the quality of other people’s thinking.  Nancy Kline

Five years ago, as an adjunct to my coach training, I participated in a virtual course on Executive Coaching. At the end of that course, several of us decided to keep learning together and organized a book club. After a few months, the group ended up at a steady four–myself and three other women. We’ve met every two months since then, each time focusing on a different book. Through those book discussions we explored new ways of thinking about our work, our purpose, and about how people learn, grow and develop.

A few months ago, we decided that it was time to take our virtual conversations to a new level and to gather in person. One of the books we had read was “Time to Think” by Nancy Kline. Since we all were particularly struck by Kline’s book, we did a little research and found out that we could organize a workshop for just the four of us. So, last weekend, Sara Hart, who has worked closely with Kline for decades, led us in learning about and practicing the Time to Think process.

The heart of coaching, I’ve long believed, is listening. Listening intently and with full presence. This weekend, using the Time to Think process, I felt the power of listening in new ways. And, I experienced what happened to me when someone just listened.

Over the three days together we learned to conduct a very structured Thinking Partners conversation. In it, you simply ask a person what they want to think about–and what their thoughts are. Then you listen. And listen. And listen some more. Finally, when your partner has said all that they have to say, you ask whether there’s more that they are thinking or feeling. And you listen, and listen, and listen some more. And, when they’ve completed that–you ask again. And you ask until everything has been said or thought. Typically, somewhere along the line, the “thinker” has begun to think or say things that they haven’t thought before. Sometimes, it takes awhile before the thinking is fresh and new. Especially when we’re talking about topics that have been on our mind and where we’ve been stuck.

Once we think about everything that we can related to our topic, our partner asks us if there’s anything more we want from the conversation. Much of the time the answer will be no, we’ve covered it just by thinking it out on our own. Sometimes, there’s something more. If there is, we work with our partner in a process of uncovering assumptions that might be getting in our way and result in our being stuck. We worked to replace those with different, “liberating,” assumptions and see how that can help us to get unstuck. This last part is a little trickier–and I don’t recommend doing it at home without at least reading more (the book describes the process.)

What I took away after three days was the power of listening with absolutely no other agenda than paying full attention to another person. I realized how rare it is to listen without feeling the need to ask a great question, paraphrase brilliantly or reply with an incredibly insightful response. I listened fully and completely–and was listened to in the same way. I knew I wouldn’t be interrupted–and that I wouldn’t interrupt. We were absolutely present to the other person, allowing them time, allowing them silence, respecting their thinking, appreciating them. We maintained comfortable eye contact–demonstrating that nothing was more important to us than what they had to think.

It was an amazing gift. The four of us have now set up ongoing thinking calls that we’re doing on Skype. We’re practicing this new “technology” with one another. We’re also trying to figure out how this fits into the rest of our lives.

Even in just a few days I’ve discovered that I can show up differently with a client. I’m finding I’m much less worried about finding the “right” question, because listening fully is such a gift. And, when I do, the right question makes itself known. Or, sometimes, I listen a little longer, and realize that my client’s thinking has gone in a different direction–one that is even better for them.

I wish each of you the gift of being truly listened to. I encourage you to try out “just” listening and see what you discover. Enjoy!

Update: I’ve expanded on some of what I wrote and added a very powerful and simple practice  in a post for Actionable, called The Power of a Pause. Check it out!