Dr. C: Do you encourage the opposite view?

April 7, 2013 

Dr. John Turner turned to me one day in our San Francisco Bechtel office, and said: “Bill, tell me why you disagree with the way I presented that material in our last seminar.” I was stunned. John was the expert; I was just learning how to give executive seminars. He had worked at the Menninger Institute with the best psychiatrists in the nation, and had been hired by Steve Bechtel himself. And, besides, how did he know that I disagreed with his methodology, and why would he even care?

“John”, I said slowly, “it’s a little difficult for me to explain; it’s not that I think you should do it differently. It’s just that I would do it differently if I were in charge.” At this point, John could have said: “Well, you’re not in charge, and until you are, we’ll do it my way.” But he didn’t.

He sat down in his swivel chair, stroked his white goatee, and waited for me to speak. As I described an approach that was more interactive than his, he never interrupted. He never defended himself. When he did speak, he asked questions about my teaching method, and how it worked. With his questions, he made me probe and search and analyze even more than I had ever done before. When I was all finished, he shook my hand, and thanked me.

He said the company needed my ideas and enthusiasm, and he was proud to work with me. When I left his California office that day, I felt important. Imagine. He made me feel important even though I was attacking his methodology, his experience, his wisdom.

How many of us do that? When your employees -- or your children -- attack your decisions, do you make them feel important? I know I feel the temptation to belittle them, to make them appear stupid. The easiest way to win an argument is not with facts, but with fantasy.

Turner encouraged me to attack him, and then listened without interrupting, without defending, without attacking back. And when it was all over, I felt important.

As I remember, (this was 50 years ago) Turner never changed his methodology, but he was always a strong supporter of my seminars and my methods, which were very different from his.

If you want to be a leader who encourages the opposite view, you might want to start out slowly. I don’t think Turner acquired this skill that very day in California with me. I think he had been practicing and changing and molding this skill with repeated tries.

You could start with your spouse. All of us know the topics of disagreement in our own homes.

1. Pick a topic.

2. Pick a time.

3. Pick the outcome.

You won’t have any trouble picking a topic. In my home, the one word “dyslexia” can get my wife talking for hours. What’s the topic in your home? Picking the right time is tricky. You want to pick a time when you can give your spouse the uninterrupted opportunity to elaborate on his/her favorite subject. And in most homes -- with kids -- that time is hard to find. But make an effort.

You need to “pick the outcome.” Remember, the two of you disagree on this topic. You have often stated your opinion in the past. If you don’t decide from the very beginning to do a “John Turner,” this conversation could end in tears and anger. The outcome must be that the other person feels “important.”

“Feeling important” can only happen if you: State from the beginning that you just want to listen to the opposite idea. Don’t interrupt. Don’t present your own side, even if asked to do so. Make it clear that all you want to do right now is listen.

Ask penetrating questions which help to clarify and emphasize. End by thanking him/her for the insights. You’ll know you’re a great leader if you listen to people with the opposite opinion, and they leave the room feeling important.

Dr. Bill Cummings is the CEO of Cummings Consolidated Corporation and Cummings Management Consultants. His website is digitallydrc.com.

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