José Mota

Product & Coaching

Modesty in conversation

Published on .

Tagged under soft skills.

Around 4 min read.

How do you feel about the way you interact with your colleagues and leaders? Do you listen actively hoping to learn something from them or do you preemptively assume you’re better and therefore you close off at the first divergence?

Contrary to what most people I work with might think, I have an introvert nature. I find solace in moments where I’m quiet at home with my family, away from the crowds. When I have to run an errand outside (for instance, drop the car at the repair shop) which requires me to wait an entire morning until it’s done, I take my laptop and go to a place where I can feel quiet; usually a library or a quiet coffee shop will do the trick, as long as I bring my headphones to focus. When I have a meeting with a partner or a colleague, I often suggest that we go somewhere that is distraction-free so we can have an overall richer experience. Ever since I started working remotely close to 8 years ago, I have been so much more productive than having to listen to chatter and phone rings all the time.

Despite all that, I do enjoy meaningful conversations with people. It’s great to find people that think like me and are empathetic to the stories I share. However, it’s not always the case where both parts agree on every single point of view — they’re bound to disagree, even on the smallest thing. The workplace is certainly not exempt from disagreement. In fact, a healthy dose of discussion and divergence is the very foundation for growth within a team and its members.

When I joined the workforce 11 years ago I was very stubborn and close-minded. My ego was the size of a boulder! I could barely hold any conversation because I had a strong sense of prejudice towards my peers, I’ll admit that. I was too proud of my own skills, I was passionate about the impact I thought I could bring to others. Truth be told, I sparked positive reactions in others through my work. However, my inability to fit the team outweighed my results and I was forced to endure a path of resistance and fear.

Many years have passed since then but I took that learning experience very closely to my heart. Nowadays, I often ask myself this question: do I still disregard my peers’ opinions and feedback as before? How am I growing as a person and as a leader?

Now that you know a little bit about my dark side, you’ll quickly realize that the hardest thing I had to learn was how to listen carefully and not judge my peer. It would take a significant effort to hear what the other person had to say, free of judgement, and not open my mouth, let alone give myself a couple of seconds to think about what he/she said. Once I sought to resign my ego, appreciate the reasoning behind their words and respect their argument as valid as my own, perhaps even more, I began to see significant improvements in my relationships. Whereas before I disputed any form of feedback and I didn’t learn as effectively, I am now opened up many more opportunities, which in turn give me room to share my thoughts and experiences to others.

I’ve read Dale Carnegie’s book on how to win friends and influence people twice. There is a series of timeless suggestions from The Economic Press he refers to that relate to the way we debate with others and win their trust. If you’re interested, there’s a link in the show notes. In a nutshell:

  1. Accept disagreement, not as a threat but as an opportunity to grow or avoid serious mistakes;
  2. Distrust your first instinctive impression. Don’t rush into words. Give yourself some room to think about what you’re hearing;
  3. Remember when I said that I opened my mouth too quickly? I remember when I was a kid and I had to throw in a small comment to everything I was told, and I mean every single phrase…! Control your temper;
  4. Listen uninterruptedly. Deep conversation requires deep respect for each one’s ability to speak. Don’t just cut them short out of spite.
  5. Look for positives, aim to agree on certain points. What is the point of developing strong relationships with others if you’re constantly pointing out the pain points and not highlighting their accomplishments?
  6. Admit your failures. There’s nothing wrong in acknowledging that you’ve made a bad decision. In fact, the sooner you admit it, the less risk there is for drastic consequences and you open yourself up to getting help and learning. Would you rather hold your pride, become defensive and risk losing your peers’ respect? By opening up about your errors you reduce the chance for conflict and increase the chance for stronger bonds;
  7. Actively consider your peer’s input when revising your opinions afterwards, because otherwise you wouldn’t have a conversation to begin with. A smearing attitude is destructive and only leads to disappointment down the road. Say, for example, you wanted to give some feedback to a collaborator about something you think he did wrong. He/she then counters your claim with new information that changes the outcome of your remarks. Instead of dismissing it altogether, accept their observations and reformulate what you would say.
  8. Show appreciation for their interest in talking to you. Gratitude is one of the most powerful human emotions. Similar to knowledge, when you show gratitude to others, you don’t give it away, you share it and it multiplies. Show your peer that you appreciate their time and willingness to speak with you.
  9. Propose a reasonable amount of time to regroup about a subject. If your conversation requires a followup in the near future, schedule a time for it, but do so in a way that enables both of you to gather your improved thoughts and add increased value.

Whether debating an argument with an adversary, running a meeting to gather ideas with the team or pitching a proposal to leaders, I’ve learned (the hard way) that the best way to draw a positive outcome is to adopt an uplifting stance towards people. If you stay cool in the face of disagreement, accept all arguments to weigh in in your growth process and show genuine appreciation for whoever is partaking in the discussion, you will develop stronger relationships and your knowledge will expand accordingly. On the other hand, should you stand your ground on your opinions and close off at the first hint of disagreement, don’t expect people to come to you in the future.