Pick a Side, Any Side… My Side

“You know, Sara, you’re going to have to pick a side.”

This is what I heard a colleague tell me, and I admit it is not the first time I’ve heard it. My college friends laugh at this state of affairs, because they remember a more strident version of me, who would cross the street to wave the flag of justice. Of course, I was the judge and jury for justice in those days. As I began my professional career and started building skill sets, I remember being profoundly impacted by a mediation training in my late 20’s. Transformational take-aways, for me, included understanding that my business could be based on getting the right answers, not having all the right answers (bye-bye, nerve devouring stress!). My highest service was actually in the set-up: who had information that I needed? How could I get the brightest stakeholders engaged in solving problems instead of hating each others’ ideas? How could I get them to show up without the usual weapons of defensiveness, cynicism, and lack of regard for divergent opinions? When I landed on a process that helped achieve these things, I started getting consistent results.

So began my love affair with really good communication skills. We’ve heard the basics a million times, and there is a reason for this: the basics work. Listen. (Not the fake kind, where you’re just waiting to off ’em as soon as they take a breath.) Be responsible for yourself. (It’s your job to be able to describe why you believe what you believe, not someone else’s.) Get comfortable with the idea that opposing thoughts can both have value. Sometimes they can both be true. (More on this another day.) As a matter of fact, according to F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

Roger Martin, business consultant and Dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, wrote about this “integrative thinking” ability in his 2007 Harvard Business School article, describing skills that set business leaders apart. A game changing skill, he said, was their shared “capacity to hold in their heads two opposing ideas at once. And then, without panicking or simply settling for one alternative or the other, they’re able to creatively resolve the tension between those two ideas by generating a new one that contains elements of the others but is superior to both.”

What I’ve discovered is that the people who want you to pick a side want you to pick their side. And while that is human nature, in many respects, it is often the most effective way to kill the deal before you can fully understand what you’re losing. With a good set of ears, the confidence to hold your own opinions without needing to annihilate others for holding different ones, and working to generate as many options as possible for win-wins is exciting. A small step toward world-peace, success and prosperity, and certainly the recipe for getting there.

Sara Flitner