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,” 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. 




Small Shift–Big Impact: A Deep Dive into “Yes, And”

There’s a good chance that at some point you’ve learned about the distinction between using  “yes, and” vs. “yes, but.”  The thing is, there’s more to it than you think.

I was first introduced to “yes, and” in Difficult Conversations (still one of my favorite books) by Stone, Patton and Heen. A “yes, and” stance validates rather than undermines what another person is saying. A “yes, but” essentially means that anything before the “but” is rejected. Stone and team focus on the value of the “and” in demonstrating that you’re really listening, hearing another view and acknowledging that there are two potentially true ideas on the table. This makes it a very valuable tool in the difficult conversation–which is the focus of their work. But that’s not all…

The moment you say “but,” you are ruling out the possibility of seeing or doing something differently–of seeing multiple perspectives. When you shift from the “but” to the “and,” you allow possibilities instead of shutting them down. You have the opportunity to see a situation and the world a little differently.

If this is your first exposure to this idea–or if you’ve heard it before and realize that you’re still “yes, butting,” then take some time and notice your “yes, buts” and see how frequent they are, notice what (and who) you’re saying them to. Don’t be surprised, when you stop and notice, that you’ll discover yourself “yes, butting” quite a bit. For some of us, the word “but” is almost a reflex, something that shows up almost like an “um” in our conversation.

Now, if you think you’ve got the “yes, and” down, it’s time to take it to the next level. In Conversation Transformation, Benjamin, Yeager and Simon (notice: another book about conversations written by a team!) demonstrate just how much more there is to the “yes, but.”  They suggest a great exercise–identifying all the “stealth” versions of “yes, but” in our speech. Our stealth “yesses” might include: “You could say that” or “that could be true” or “that’s one way to look at things” (can you keep going?). The stealth “buts” might sound like: “However” or “still” or “it’s just that”…

Getting the idea? So, listen not only for the actual “yes, buts” but the stealth ones. And, go even further. Listen for the times when the “yes, but” remains even when you’ve replaced the words. You can sense in your body, perhaps, a holding back, a clenching that is the “yes, but” that you haven’t yet fully eradicated. This is a sign that you might be saying the words “yes, and” while not actually being open to the other person’s words or ideas.

I’ve also noticed my tendency to “yes, but” my own ideas…close off options before I’ve given them a chance–an equally limiting practice. This shows up for me in both words (when I actually say “but” or one of its cousins to myself) or when I sense that I’m drafting all the objections and not giving the idea (often my own idea) a chance. Rejecting it out of fear, perhaps.

Benjamin (and team) suggest a great practice for build our “yes, and” muscle. It’s called “build and explore.” Instead of just changing your language, you actually stop and think of three things about the idea that you are about to “but” that you genuinely like, agree with or can add to. The authors provide a simple example: Your spouse suggests that you go on a two-week vacation and your response is “but we don’t have that kind of time.” Before going to the “but” think of three specific things about the idea that you like (it would be great to go on a two week vacation; there’s so much we could do and see that one week just isn’t enough for.) Three is important–it’s a lot harder than two and that’s a good thing. And, you can build and explore on your own “yes, buts,” of course. You still might not go on the vacation–though you’re likely to see it differently and perhaps come up with a new idea altogether. You’ll definitely feel differently.

So, start practicing. First step, as with most good practices, is simply noticing. Don’t be alarmed if you discover a lot more “yes, butting” and its variants than you expected. That’s a critical first step. As you notice and shift–either through stepping back from the “yes, but” (which often happens when you notice) or through practicing “build and explore,” you’ll start noticing that you’ll be “yes, butting” with less frequency and that “yes, and” will become a new habit. One that is very good for you as a leader and as a human being.