Every time an election cycle rolls around, I suddenly feel a surge of renewed interest in my teenage and early adult love affair with logic. My academic focus in university and beyond was philosophy, and specifically, logic and the philosophy of language and science. Those areas are preoccupied with the consistency of arguments and the internal structure of thought, knowledge and learning. So for me, bad reasoning feels like the proverbial nails on a chalkboard. And as it happens, political campaigns are rife with masses of fallacious argumentation. Given that, it’s hard for me not to become a social media school marm, pointing out fallacy after fallacy, shaming my friends and their candidates’ public statements like a vicious, nit-picking, know-it-all. I try to hold my tongue (and typing) and thereby preserve my friendships. But it’s really challenging and mostly just requires me to temporarily “unfollow” loads of people lest I slam them in a moment of weakness.
You may well ask, “what does this have to do with leadership?”. Well, let me bring up one more thread before I answer that question. I was listening to a podcast I like about rationality (which I recommend). The host suggested that for those of us who are apt to jump on the critical bandwagon the moment a lapse in logic takes place — we might do better to listen more charitably, in the interest of understanding the real intent, rather than the literal statement. A modified example of the one she used is this: You’re at a dinner party and mention you have migraines, and someone suggests that you try some kind of homeopathic tea. You reply that you use a medication prescribed by your doctor, to which he responds “but this tea is natural”. Now, if it were me at the dinner party instead of you, I would be inclined to go on the attack — because the premise that what is “natural” is healthy strikes me as shallow and fallacious. The stock answer is “Cyanide is also natural. So what?” [By the way, in that scenario, I would also mentally assign the speaker to “irrelevant” category. And more times than not, the loss is mine.] But since you are more restrained than me (I hope), you would consider the fact that if you said that it would have one of two effects: Either the conversation would stop dead in its tracks and deafening silence and discomfort would ensue; or you would end up in an argument, and discomfort would also ensue. Neither is really the best outcome at a dinner party. And both would likely strike you from the next party’s guest-list.
Here’s an alternative approach that I am training myself to use. A more sympathetic listening to the person making the suggestion might lead to a different response. There may be some information or fact underlying the suggestion that could be of value. For example, this person may have had migraines and may have some direct experience with them. Moreover, the tea, while “natural”, may also have some actual, demonstrated value despite your never having heard of it. For the purposes of this conversation, we don’t know if either of those is true. Let’s assume they’re not.
But perhaps more importantly, there may be some intent underlying the suggestion that could open up an opportunity for greater affinity, friendship and empathy. And that’s the part of this idea that really matters for leaders. Speaking as a lifelong “accuracy curmudgeon”, I have the direct experience of toxifying many a conversation, presentation, interaction and more with my demand for acuity and the resulting obnoxiousness. So I am not here to report from a position of sainthood, but rather as a “recovering correcter”. There is much to be gained by adopting a different stance when we encounter errors in reasoning, facts or speech. Here’s a suggestion from my own small but growing arsenal of alternative perspectives. Instead of pointing out the error, counsel yourself toward deep and abiding curiosity. Ask questions (no, not gotcha questions). Learn what is informing the person whose error you’ve noticed without pointing out the error. Instead, find out why they believe their (perhaps faulty) premise (if they do), or what they really mean to say if they have misstated something. Odds are, they have benign intentions and maybe even incredibly kind and generous aims. They may truly want to help, contribute, be heard, learn or just connect with you (or me). But until you dig into it, you won’t know that.
Something amazing can happen when we bridge innate social distance with curiosity and inquiry. This is true whether the issue arises with a peer, a subordinate or a friend. The opportunity to build a bridge out of what could be a pigeon-holing moment of judgment expands your chances to empower and cultivate discovery for those around you. So in this season of political campaigns, when so many people are saying so many irrational things, maybe one antidote is to build greater connection. Connections that transcend opinions and allow for the humanity that we all possess to rise to observable levels. For myself, it’s one of several sanity-preserving and friendship-building strategies I am avidly attempting right now! And it will enhance your leadership within your organization or sphere of influence, granting those you influence an ever greater range in which to express their own extraordinary gifts.
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