On several recent trips to northern Minnesota, I have passed a parked trailer with a sign painted on its side. The sign reads, “Go ahead and eat your steak and wear your fur. It’s the American way.”
Each time I drive past the sign, I feel angry. Who gives the owner of this truck the right to define for everyone what it means to be an American? I only eat steak occasionally because of high cholesterol and have no interest in wearing fur. Does this make me less of an American?
In a similar vein, I read a story recently about a woman protesting a mask mandate in her child’s school. She was (by her own admission) verbally assaulting school board members voting in favor of the mandate. Her response when called out for her behavior was (paraphrased), “I have a constitutional right to treat elected officials any way I want because they work for me.”
This seems very sad to me. It misses the obvious, which is that her school board member has just as much right to an opinion as she does. And besides, what about treating another human being with respect and decency?
Of course, I am not above having my own opinions. If I had it in my power, I’d mandate that everyone (except those with religious or medical reasons) be vaccinated. Listening to interviews with healthcare workers overwhelmed by taking care of unvaccinated COVID patients and reading and listening to my preferred news sources convinces me that the only way to gain control of the pandemic is to get everyone vaccinated.
So, does this make me a hypocrite? Isn’t my wanting everyone to be vaccinated the same as the person who wants everyone to eat steak and wear fur?
Maybe, but I am not so sure. There is a difference between having an opinion and shouting my opinion at others.
Curiosity and open-mindedness are defining characteristics of effective leaders (and human beings that I want to spend time with). Curiosity and open-mindedness are signs of humility, another trait of the best leaders I know. Humility requires being an adult…having the capacity to both have an opinion and to recognize others have a right to theirs, even if it different from one’s own.
What would it be like if instead of shouting our opinions at each other, we decided to spend that time trying to listen to and understand each other’s viewpoints? For the record, research on conflict management is clear that resolving differences takes place best in three steps and in this order:
- Listen with curiosity to the other’s point of view
- Respectfully express your point of view
- Seek common ground and mutually acceptable solutions
Carl Rogers’ research on creating psychological safety continues to be a touchstone in my work with leaders. Growth and learning require vulnerability. To risk vulnerability, certain conditions are required. These conditions are applicable to managing, leading, teaching, parenting, therapy, coaching and any other relationship involving personal growth. The three conditions:
- Unconditional positive regard
- Listening with empathy
To offer positive regard requires that you respect the other as a person. Think kindness. Listening with empathy requires that you demonstrate curiosity. Ask questions intended to gain understanding, not to convince (e.g., “How can you think that?” is not really a question…it is an opinion described as a question). Congruence means being authentic. It doesn’t mean shouting your opinion and it also requires that you not violate the positive regard condition.
There are times when I feel despair about the state of the world. But then I remind myself that I can control the quality of the interactions I choose to have. And that is something.
If you are interested in becoming a more curious and open-minded listener (and leader) let’s talk. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.