"As a Creative Director," the woman on the phone explains, "I am constantly having to present my ideas and concepts. So when it comes to selling an idea, I have no problem. And in contexts where I'm in a comfortable or casual setting with friends or colleagues, again, no problem with communication or storytelling.
"... But for some reason, whenever I am in a room with directors or high level executives -- I lose my voice."
"I don't know what it's about," she continues, "but there's something about those formulaic situations where I suddenly go quiet and observant and blank. It's almost like I go into a different part of my brain."
How many of us can relate to what she describes? Brainstorming with our friends or colleagues, we are bursting with ideas and recommendations and stories and advice to get the point across and the ball rolling -- but as soon as the Big Kahuna enters the room and starts doling out prescriptions of his or her own, suddenly that deep well of insight just... dries up.
Authority makes us do funny things.
... Including shrink ourselves down to a size and shape that won't be perceived as threatening or insubordinate to anyone who might be watching for such things. There is a certain danger in speaking up, in calling attention to yourself, in proclaiming: "I have an idea... and it might challenge yours."
What if your idea is laughed at? What if it's been tried already? What if someone already suggested it when you were in the bathroom or checking your phone? What if it offends someone? Or worse -- what if it's good, and this makes them think that YOU think you're better than them?
So many risks, every time we open our mouths! And yet, this is something we must learn how to navigate if we want to be perceived as leaders in our organizations and in our fields.
How do you hold onto your voice, even when it feels dangerous? How do you speak your truth, no matter who is listening?
A huge mistake I see people make in the pursuit of speaking their truth is that they end up competing with someone else's version of The Truth. This positions your ego and their ego in direct opposition to each other, which makes the other person feel threatened and defensive (especially in the presence of an audience).
This is also why people complain that most meetings feel like a tremendous waste of time: because huge energy is spent going back and forth between two or more viewpoints to try and determine which one is the winner, when that energy could have been used collaboratively to solve the problem if only egos hadn't gotten involved. (For an excellent organizational solution to this, see Six Thinking Hats by Edward de Bono.)
To avoid falling into this ego trap, it's vital to remember that whenever ANYONE speaks or tells a story, their goal on some level is to feel seen. And if (consciously or unconsciously) you engage in competition with them for the prize of being seen, they will resent you for it. Even if -- perhaps especially if -- your idea is objectively more prize-worthy.
As they say, you may win the argument -- but would you rather be right, or effective?
The next time you find yourself in a meeting with a bunch of higher-ups and you have something to contribute, try this easy 3-step method for adding your idea with grace:
1. "I hear what you're saying about x, and it's absolutely valid."
Right away, before you've uttered a word of challenge or dissent, you've successfully inserted yourself into the conversation by feeding their basic human hunger to feel seen. You've showed them you were listening, that their story did not land on deaf ears, that it was not only received, but appreciated!
Your attention is the most precious gift you can give another human. When you take the time to mirror someone's story back at them, they feel seen -- and they see you as generous.
Right off the bat, then, you've positioned yourself as an ally, rather than a competitor.
Plus, this gives you time to collect your thoughts on what to say now that you've got their attention.
2. "And at the same time..."
Here, you are gracefully presupposing the opposite of a zero-sum game:
Both ideas can be valid and co-existing at the same time.
Imagine that! We don't have to choose one over the other just yet! For now, at least, we can have both! Isn't that FUN?
Designers and improvisors rejoice: Quit saying "No, but-" and start saying "Yes, and!"
3. "I wonder if..."
Once you've diffused the competition and pressure to choose, you can insert your idea. The key is to introduce it not as your idea but as a question that needs pondering and input from everyone.
This frees others from fear around what it means to validate your idea, so they can focus on whether or not the idea itself is valid.
Put it all together and this might sound like:
"I hear what you're saying, Jane, about the need to create more interactive content for social media, and that's absolutely valid. And at the same time, I wonder if it would also serve us to do some user testing, to find out what kind of content they'd be most interested in?"
Which comes off a hell of a lot different than:
"But don't you think we should do some user testing first?"
When I shared this strategy with the woman on the phone, she liked it immediately. And she voiced her surprise at how our conversation had gone beyond "storytelling" and into the realms of human behavior and social psychology.
And I had to chuckle, thinking of all the people who come for help with their story, only to discover
how much deeper the rabbit hole goes than they ever could have guessed.