On Communication Style: Pushing The Limits Of Discussion

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Lately, I’ve been finding myself thinking a lot on what would be the most productive way to run meetings that involve possible conflicts and require pushing the boundaries. The exact nature of the meeting doesn't matter that much - it could be an informal discussion, a brainstorming session or a heated public debate - the question on how to best handle it to get the most out of it still remains.

My inclination in the past was almost always to focus on getting to the core of the argument as fast as possible, and than to relentlessly push the discussion forward. This often meant that was it's all right to shoot down the ideas, and the conflict was to be welcomed, not shied away from.

And for a while, this approach worked fine for me - at least as long as I continued to work in venture capital. However, when I started venturing outside of that world, it turned out that many things that worked fine in VC didn't necessarily yield the same results in the different kinds of environments I started finding myself in. I believe that it had a lot to do with some of the specifics of the setting I grew accustomed to: in VC, you typically have to deal with relatively strict hierarchy, and a lot of ambiguity, coupled with time and resource constraints, plus you're constantly surrounded by A-type personality people.

Other environments, however, are not necessarily like that. In business school, big tech or even at many startups, you might not have a clear hierarchy, instead collaborating with a lot of people who are your peers, not your bosses or subordinates. You also often have more resources (and time) to explore different areas, but at the same time have to make longer commitments once you decide to go with a particular idea. Next, not everyone around you has an A-type personality (and not everyone lives to work either), which means you have to be a bit more cognizant of other people's needs and priorities. Finally, it's important to remember that your conduct can sometimes actually offend people - something that is a bit less of an issue if you work in an high stakes environment like venture capital, where many people develop thicker skin over time.

For me, getting accustomed to this new environment turned out to be somewhat challenging. Interestingly enough, I actually do appreciate many of the things I highlighted above - as an INTJ, strongly skewed towards introversion, I didn't always feel comfortable in the heated discussions of the VC world. At the same time, over the years I had learned to appreciate the benefits that often came with having intense, frank, ‘cut to the heart of the issue’ discussions, and didn't want to give those benefits up, unless I could see for myself how adopting a different communication approach would allow me to achieve even better results.

In my previous post, I touched on one example of a situation when being inclusive and open to new ideas, even if you believe that you already know they won't work, might benefit you and your team in the long run: if your goal is to bring in new and unconventional ideas, it makes a lot of sense to ensure that you're creating a safe environment for everyone to feel comfortable sharing their insights in; and then you can always revisit the viability of those ideas later.

Another example of a situation where focusing on having a nicer, calmer discussion can be critical I can think of is working cross-functionally, something that is extremely common in the tech world. If, say, you are a Product Manager at a tech company, you have to interact with software developers, designers, as well as sales and marketing people on the daily basis. However, in most cases, none of those people report to you directly, which means that often the only way to make them co-operate with you is by gaining their trust and respect first, something that would be extremely hard to do if you have a harsh and authoritative communication style, no matter how smart you are.

This is something I've witnessed at Microsoft over the summer: in a company of 100,000+ people your networks and the reputation you’ve built for yourself are no less important that the skills or ideas that you bring to the table. You can't hope to lead any kind of meaningful change without winning the people's trust first, and you won't be able to achieve that unless you first learn to have inclusive discussions, and to attract people instead of alienating them.

The same goes for the business school environment: while you might consider yourself the smartest person in the room, others most definitely won't take it for granted, plus, for that matter, a lot of people might not even care. Therefore, it's essential to figure out how to become more open-minded and inclusive, otherwise, the impact you'd have would most likely remain very limited (plus, you'd risk gaining a nasty reputation among your peers).

At the same time, I continue to believe that we shouldn't shy away from the conflict just because they make people feel uncomfortable. Some of the best ideas were born in the most heated discussions; by arguing, we can often uncover the insights that would otherwise stay hidden, generate exciting new ideas or even simply express our views better. This isn't limited to one's workplace - arguments represent an extremely important and useful tool in practically every sphere of our lives. What I’m learning to appreciate more these days, though, is the importance of remaining polite, listening hard and being ready to change my mind if the other side’s ideas prove to be sound. Whether we intimidate others by arguing with them - or elevate them - is entirely up to us.

To quote from Bret Stephens' lecture delivered at the Lowy Institute Media Award dinner (the full text of the lecture can be found here):

"To say the words, “I agree” — whether it’s agreeing to join an organization, or submit to a political authority, or subscribe to a religious faith — may be the basis of every community.

But to say, I disagree; I refuse; you’re wrong; etiam si omnes — ego non — these are the words that define our individuality, give us our freedom, enjoin our tolerance, enlarge our perspectives, seize our attention, energize our progress, make our democracies real, and give hope and courage to oppressed people everywhere. Galileo and Darwin; Mandela, Havel, and Liu Xiaobo; Rosa Parks and Natan Sharansky — such are the ranks of those who disagree."