As we go through life, we make waves. Some ripples, some large tides; some in acquiescence with the current flow, some not. When we are in acquiescence with others we tend to have an easier time being heard. It takes less energy to get our point across. A roomful of nodding heads is a much more inviting sight than a roomful of averted eyes, negative micro-expressions and sharply exhaled breath.
I’ve been known to have wild ideas from time to time (to which, some were even worth listening). However, the most difficult part for me has always been managing my own resilience in the face of averted eyes, impatiently cleared throats and conscious or unconscious displays of disinterest, anger, anxiety or inconvenience. The most exciting and rewarding pieces of work I have carried out were when I was able to find a safe space for my wild ideas and benefit from colleagues’ objective examination of them. As I move deeper into the area of innovative thinking, teaching and learning with my next career move, I want to test out four strategies that I think could help when a disruptive idea comes along. If you think you could benefit from employing these too, please do, and be sure to tell me what works and what doesn’t @teabutton
1.) Reduce friction by managing emotions
How much friction is created by you and your own self-doubt, and how much is created by the people around you? I have certain ‘hotspots’ — topics about which I know I tend to become emotional. Sometimes just labeling emotions helps to get them out of the way when you have something important to discuss. You can even reduce physical displays of anxiety or fear through doing so. If you are bringing a unique perspective or a new idea to a group of homogenous thinkers you are bound to experience both self-doubt and witness insecurity in others to whom your opinion might just be inconvenient. Labeling your emotions about something in a matter-of-fact way goes beyond reducing physical signs of discomfort: it can also be a disarmingly frank way to get somebody’s attention. By asking your audience “how does this make you feel?” after sharing your idea, you can get them to label their emotions, too.
2.) Understand perspectives different to yours
Try to understand all the different perspectives in the room. What do they care about? Why might your idea be inconvenient for them? How does it make them feel? What are their individual situations? Attempting to answer these questions without judgment is the simple mental technology of perspective-taking (a discussion of which exists in Binna Kandola’s excellent book about eliminating bias, “The Value of Difference”). This exercise can help you to empathise not just with individuals but also the situations in which they find themselves. Perspective-taking allows us to take another’s point of view into account without making judgment of any kind. This will allow you to think about others and their perspectives in a similar fashion to how you think about yourself, thus developing empathy and narrowing the gap between you and others. It does not necessarily mean that you will like others and their perspectives more, you will simply have information relating to others’ thoughts and feeling more easily available for cognitive manipulation.
3.) Create certainty wherever possible
We are hard-wired to scan our environment for potential threats. In fact, our attention spent on scanning for potential threats is even greater than that spent scanning for potential rewards. If you launch an idea out into the open and it is attacked quickly, chances are you’ve said something that has created a strong threat response in your audience. David Rock’s SCARF model works well for getting the best out of collaborative thinking. It could help to analyse any effect your idea might have on the perceived changes to Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness for others. This would be an excellent step to take after doing a perspective-taking exercise as described above. You can even do a SCARF self assessment on yourself to understand more about what threat/reward structure is prevalent for you.
4.) Maintain a growth mindset
Stay hungry for knowledge, stay hungry for learning and stay hungry for feedback. With this kind of mindset, you won’t mind so much when you have been brave enough to posit a truly terrible idea and the world around you tells you so. In the words of Carl Sagan, reproduced so elegantly by Maria Popova on BrainPickings, “Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours. It’s only a way station in the pursuit of knowledge.” By maintaining a growth mindset you are more likely to translate your potential into performance and even improve on your original form. Performance gurus at Lane4 discuss this in relation to athletes who have continued to improve because of their attitudes towards setbacks, rather than in spite of them. So instead of thinking that your idea has failed, think of it as not yet ready.
I’d like to thank the ever-amazing Diana Kimball for her advice, support and editing prowess on this piece.