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Argue like you’re right and listen like you’re wrong

In studying communication and candor, I’ve come across the notion of “strong opinions, loosely held” as a foundation for candor.

Lately, I’ve heard this concept expressed in a different and, to my mind, better way. In this post, I’ll explain why the concept is important to a healthy organizational culture. Then I’ll explain why I think the new formulation is better.

Ideas in organizational culture

We all agree that a strong organizational culture includes the ability of any person to express their ideas. We want an idea meritocracy – the best idea gets adopted and the organization improves. The problem is that having different ideas usually involves conflict as people propose and defend their perspectives. Most organizations and teams are allergic to this kind of debate. But it is important for several reasons:

  1. We think of conflict as a bad thing – We rush toward unity or consensus by swallowing our opinions.
  2. If we squash open debate, we open ourselves to groupthink –  The lack of different or opposing ideas can hide the weaknesses of a given approach. We wind up achieving a form of “consensus” which is really a rubber-stamping of ideas we don’t agree with.
  3. People need to be able to say what they see, regardless of their position in the organization – This flies in the face of traditional ideas about how we talk to and in front of our boss. “Never bring the boss bad news.” “Don’t be negative/don’t whine.” “Don’t ‘show up’ a peer in front of the boss.” “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.” Even in brainstorming exercises, we’re taught (incorrectly, it turns out – look for another post) that ideas shouldn’t be criticized as that causes people to not speak up.

If we’re going to have healthy debate and candor within our teams, how should we behave? Even if the culture supports debate, it is difficult to express different ideas in helpful ways – in ways that don’t lead to anger and bad feelings. It is also difficult to avoid the HIPPO (highest paid person’s opinion) or the loudest voice carrying the day despite weaknesses in their ideas.

Finally, we are often not discussing black/white questions – many decisions involve finding the best of several imperfect possible solutions.

Struggling with the old adage

Several thoughtful people have advanced the idea I mention above, “strong opinions, loosely held”, as a way to think about how to communicate in debate settings.

The notion, as I understand it, is to argue strongly for your position, but be willing to abandon that position as soon as it is shown to be wrong. After understanding this approach, I’ve tried to adopt it and have struggled.

Reasons:

  1. I don’t usually advance an idea in a way that it can be proven wrong –  I’m not alone in this because it’s really hard to do.
  2. I don’t know when to move from the “strong opinion” phase to the “loosely held” phase – I’m reasonably thoughtful and have several years of experience in business. If an idea has obvious flaws, I self-censor (rightly or wrongly).
  3. How can I “loosely hold” an idea? – I either believe something to be true or not. And I have been trained to express my ideas with a confidence that borders on vehemence, in order to have the best chance of others agreeing. However, I have recently read “Thinking in Bets” by Annie Duke – she proposes that we view and state our opinions as probabilities (“I think X, but I’m only 60% confident”) to combat this.

A new formulation

Recently, I came across a different formulation that fits better in my head. In “Originals”, Adam Grant mentions the phrase “argue like you’re right and listen like you’re wrong”.

I’ve adopted it recently (and am still practicing) and I think I understand this approach better. I envision putting on a role as champion when I’m expressing my idea. But, I’ve got to remember to take on another role when someone else is speaking. The other role is that of a disinterested observer or even a critic of my own idea. I’m still practicing switching roles in this way, but the idea seems promising.

These are not the only ideas presented in Originals and Thinking in Bets, of course.

Both books are quite strong with lots of ideas about creativity and decision making. Highly recommended.

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