Listen to the Opinion, Speak to the Experience Part 2

“For acquired knowledge cannot be divorced from the existence in which it is acquired.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

It’s been pointed out to me that my previous post is a bit confusing. Granted, it’s a topic that’s probably worth writing several books, and a skill that can take years of personal development. But I want to drill down to a core that’s useful even in the short-term.

There is no such thing as objectivity among humans. (As software people are fond of saying, “It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.”) In collaboration with one another, we represent a wide array of experiences and we have each filtered out what we have found to be the salient points that we apply as broad rules of the world. This is a cognitive belief, or what we call an “opinion.”

But behind the opinion is the semi-instinctual gut feeling that is our initial filter. This is an emotional belief: a reaction, derived from our experience, that we first feel and then attempt to understand through logic and words. (I say “semi-instinctual” because highly developed, balanced individuals can actually inform and change their emotional beliefs.)

So, when we are dealing with people–whether it’s working toward consensus at a meeting, motivating a co-worker, or addressing a client’s concerns–we are dealing with a complex of emotional beliefs, masquerading as opinions.

Particularly in business, we’ve been taught to act as though the world is a rational place–or at least, that it can be made rational. And so when we encounter conflicts in opinions, we take all the facts and information from those opinions and try to reconcile them. When we can’t, we start throwing out those that don’t agree with our views until we come up with a patchwork of ideas that meshes together. Or worse, we split the difference between competing opinions and call it “compromise” just to get people on board.

The message of this process is that not every experience is valuable. If I’ve contributed my opinion and it’s been thrown out, it means that I am wrong and my perspective is useless (according to whoever is throwing it out).

But there are reasons for every opinion that are relevant to each solution. If I have a difference of opinion from everyone else in the room, it means I have an important experience to contribute–even if my opinion, the product of that experience, doesn’t bear with reality.

So much of our focus in management (and even leadership) is on getting the facts, the efforts, the opinions to fit together into a whole. And so we may often end up with solutions that are like an exquisite corpse: a too-elaborate tacking-together of mismatched parts that could never be functional.

What if, instead of trying to mesh together a patchwork of opinions, we instead undercut the opinions and worked to form an understanding of the human experience underlying the problem? What if there were no relevant experiences that didn’t matter? What if an opinion, which we often use as a way of rationalizing our emotional beliefs, is actually a lens we can look through to find the experiences that are most important to what we’re doing? Could we find a way to address the whole reality of our human experience of a problem, instead of presuming that our years of experience or our level of mastery elevate us toward perfection?

I’m not sure of the answer, but I do know that developing my own emotional maturity and my own ability to see through the eyes of others is one of the skills I value most in my business experience. This post is my own opinion: the way that I make sense of my experience. I look forward to being informed by yours.

Listen to the Opinion, Speak to the Experience

We each have at least two sets of beliefs: cognitive beliefs and emotional beliefs. Which one do you believe controls you?

You’re likely to say your cognitive beliefs–because it’s your cognitive self that is analyzing the question, and that part of yourself wants to believe it is dominant. That it has the power to bully your emotional self into agreeing with it.

But if we were all governed by our rational selves, we would look at the same facts, see the same things, and form the same opinions. There would be no public debate, and we certainly wouldn’t have the incessant raving of rabid pundits on every form of media.

My emotional beliefs determine which facts are more important than others, which virtues are more significant than others, which vices are more destructive than others. They are the substance of all my conflicts with my lover, my mother, my best friend, my boss.

But my cognitive self wants to believe it’s in control. And so it formulates cognitive beliefs–what we call “opinions.” These opinions form a shield around our emotional beliefs, which is why we hold onto opinions so dearly. To expose our emotional beliefs would leave them open to invalidation.

To measure and count and address the opinions of people is to be a representative, not a leader. A leader isn’t concerned with opinions, she is concerned with experiences.

Consider the myriad experiences in the debates over immigration: legal immigrants with illegal-immigrant friends and family who risked their lives to cross the border; legal immigrants who struggled through a complex system; immigrants whose legal status is threatened or has slipped; union workers put out of work by immigrants; refugees from physical and economic violence; citizens who live close to violent border towns; illegal parents of legal children; kids who grew up with immigrant parents or grandparents. Every one of these people (and more) has his own experience that informs his opinions about immigration.

Phenomenology, the study of experiences, adjoins the fields of philosophy and anthropology. It’s a field that has gained some notoriety lately through books such as The Moment of Clarity, which describes case studies using anthropological techniques to inform business decisions at companies like LEGO and Intel. It also helps to turn this inquiry inward, to observe not just the experiences of customers but the experiences of the people within my own organization.

When I shout an opinion at you, what I’m saying is, “This is the best way I can see to reconcile my own experience with what I know about the world.” If you attempt to address my opinion, you are saying, “You just don’t know enough about the world.” When you attempt to address my experience, however, you are asking, “How can your experience inform what we know about the problem?” Doing so not only moves a team toward consensus, but promises a better solution.

Of course, it’s not wise to ask, “What experience do you think is driving your opinion?” Nobody wants to turn a business meeting into a therapy session. Instead, try to live like an anthropologist among those you would seek to lead. Watch how they work and observe their environment. Hear the patterns of their complaints and identify their core beliefs. Consider their incentives and responsibilities. Try to become one of them (without taking it overboard and acting like you can do what they do). Always, always ask, “Why?”

Over time, and with practice, you will start to hear the experiences. And as you do, it will become possible to address problems in a real, substantial way, rather than simply speaking to the opinions.

If you agree or disagree, please share your own experience in the comments so that we can all learn from it.

Interlocking Shields: The Importance of Constructive Conflict

Any organization that’s trying to become more innovative has to adopt one universal management skill: constructive conflict.

Constructive conflict doesn’t mean conflict resolution. It means allowing conflict to happen, even encouraging it, and focusing it into a creative, constructive exercise.

Conflict is important because it challenges beliefs and assumptions. It reveals the limits of our vision and draws out feelings and opinions that need to be dealt with. Well-executed conflict can result in more robust ideas and more complete buy-in; it also prevents territorialism and resource allocation inefficiencies from people overstating their needs, and allows us to air grievances before they develop into grudges. For these reasons, conflict doesn’t go away in a good business environment.

Conflict occurs when people have different information, different values, or different needs; constructive conflict facilitates synthesis of these differences:

  • Synthesizing information allows decisions to proceed with a more holistic view.
  • Synthesizing values allows each stakeholder to understand other stakeholders’ concerns and determine whether they are important to the matter at hand.
  • Synthesizing needs helps make decisions and compromises that will benefit the business overall and not just the stakeholder acting on his or her own.

Conflict avoidance, on the other hand, short circuits innovation by preventing the interaction of diverse viewpoints and areas of knowledge. Providing a framework for conflict to happen makes collaboration possible. All the platforms and incentives and leadership messages trying to push collaboration can be sabotaged by not knowing how to create positive conflict.

Although constructive conflict is a skill, we can start by creating a solid foundation for conflict. This begins with shared purpose and shared values: if people are working toward the same end, resolving the conflict becomes a matter of how best to achieve that end instead of a contest of ends.

We can also more clearly define roles. This is a particular challenge for less-hierarchical organizations: a manager, for example, becomes a role rather than a position of absolute authority. Yet as I’ve discussed previously, “domain” is critical to the development of individuals. Defining and using domain in very clear-cut ways helps those involved in a conflict to understand the perspectives of one another, and reduces the scale of conflict to border disputes while eschewing hostile takeovers.

Finally, constructive conflict and trust feed into one another. If you have established trust, it will help to draw out conflict and create constructive outcomes. If you create successful conflicts, it will strengthen the bond of trust.