It began with a good question, moved quickly to disagreement, and then resolved itself with a little trick that has never failed me…
“It’s an important discussion,” she said. “Should we invite only one person from each division or two or even three?”
“One,” I said. “Too many people will make conversation difficult. Plus it will be more expensive.”
“But with heads in the room we get more knowledge and experience.”
“More is not always better. It could become a content- rather than a truth-seeking mission, good ideas being negated for egoistic reasons.”
“Not if we select the right people.”
I could have pushed on and leveraged my weight and won the point. But the truth was I wasn’t 100% convinced I was right. I’ve been wrong plenty. Maybe I was wrong now.
“How strongly do you feel about that?” I asked.
“Quite strongly,” she said.
“Well my feeling is not that strong,” I replied. “Let’s go with two or three. Whatever you think.”
She was momentarily taken aback. “Let’s invite two, then,” she said.
So we did. And the event was successful – a good discussion that produced a successful solution that everyone felt comfortable with.
Thirty-five years ago, I became a junior partner to a very smart and articulate businessman. And although he valued my thinking sufficiently to make me his partner, he was wise enough to never insist on doing things his way.
He was wise for two reasons. First, because had he taken the liberty of overruling me any time we disagreed, I would have quit in a matter of weeks. Second, because he had already learned what I was yet to learn: that despite his powerful intellect and much greater experience, he wasn’t always right.
It was obvious to both of us even then that our instincts about how to go about business, how to negotiate deals, how to treat partners and employees and customers differed. And yet he had picked me, over two or three better-qualified (on paper) people who always agreed with him, to be his partner.
The very first time we had a disagreement, he suggested a rule that we would follow thereafter until the day he died. Whenever we disagreed, we would ask one another how strongly we felt about the point we were advocating. The rule was simple: Tell the truth. If you feel very strongly, say so. If you don’t, admit it.
This had an amazing effect. Not only did it completely eliminate senseless, drawn-out arguments, it created a bond of trust that made each of us willing to be more open to the other’s point of view.
As I said, this little technique worked wonders. It was, I firmly believe, essential to our growing that business from revenues of a few hundred thousand to more than $135 million in 11 years.
You must already be thinking, “But what if both partners feel very strongly about opposing views?” Interestingly, that never happened. Even when it was clear that we each felt strongly about different positions, one of us always said something like, “Well, I probably don’t feel that strongly.”
And then, more often than not, the other one suggested a compromise.
I’ve used this same technique in social situations and it works equally well. I believe it works because it nullifies ego battles and supports trust. That’s speculation. What is fact is that it worked.
Try it next time you get into a conversation jam.