What’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,” which I come back to time and time again, 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. It’s pretty simple–advocacy is about speaking up and inquiry is about asking questions–seeking to understand. While we talk a lot about inquiry in leadership and the important of listening and asking (perhaps because it is almost always the harder one to put into practice) advocacy is also important–having a voice, expressing a view and being able to effectively express your ideas.
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. 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–and we can begin by becoming aware–by noticing when we’re holding tight, when we are not asking questions–or allowing questions to be asked. Notice when advocacy has run rampant, when opinions are too firmly held. We can listen to ourselves when we say “we know” something is true 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.