In most businesses confidence is held up as a critical tool to selling one’s services or self. ‘Customers want to see confidence’, as the saying goes. There is truth to this. No one would hire a mechanic who looked under the hood and seemed unsure of what he was looking at.
But confidence is a tool that requires a delicate hand because blunt use usually undermines the desired effect. Up to a point, displays of confidence create comfort that one is working with a knowledgeable professional entity or individual. However, cross a certain line and confidence creates conflict. This happens when confidence settles into a mindset concerned foremost with its rightness. This is called having a Fixed Mind.
A Fixed Mind, as the Zen folks say, becomes like a full tea cup with no room for adding anything new. When one becomes fixed in position, and absolutely sure of one’s self, conversations become debates about the rightness of established perceptions rather than the discovery of means to the right outcomes. Innovation is suppressed in favor of rationalization (even if the arguments themselves are often emotional and irrational).
Take renewable energy for example. There are many reasons for – and benefits of -renewable energy. Yet the Liberal left feels inclined to convince the Conservative right that the earth is heating up and that we need to convert to renewables to save the planet – a premise many Conservatives simply don’t hold to be true.
In politics as elsewhere, upon collision with dissenting opinion, the Fixed Mind tends to fall back on one of two techniques in an attempt to establish its rightness:
- It drums up an avalanche of carefully curated examples or data to support its point. (This is easy enough to do in an age of plentiful, if questionable, information.)
- It becomes louder, more assertive and sometimes even aggressive in an attempt to drown out dissenting opinions.
The first tangible sign of a Fixed Mind blockage is the subtle sense that parties stop listening to one another for anything other than exploitable holes in the (now seen as an) opponent’s argument. Conversation starts to disintegrate into point-and-counter-point jabbing as volume escalates. Sometimes it even descends into a full-fledged shouting match – which is not a bad way to characterize today’s political discourse.
If you find yourself in a conversation with someone who is burying you in hand-selected facts or bludgeoning you with aggressive “confidence” displays its safe to assume that there is no real option for mutual benefit or collaborative advancement at that point. You are no longer engaged in finding the best outcome, you are fighting over rightness with a Fixed Mind.
Unfortunately left unchecked the Fixed Mind’s approach of brute force, escalated voice, data carpet bombing and overblown assertiveness have exactly the opposite effect of the confidence-building being sought. While the bludgeoner may think they have “won”, what is usually happening is the other party is shutting down. They have stopped listening, given up on seeking the right outcome and instead have changed to seeking a different outcome – doing whatever it takes to make the noise stop.
The destructive effect here reaches beyond the problem – which now has the limitation of only one perspective, the bludgeoner’s. In the process of steamrolling his/her opinion over everyone else, the aggressor has also begun to label themselves as someone to avoid because they appear incapable of true collaboration. So this person or party, who may well bring useful talents to the table, has suddenly put themselves in a position where it is advantageous for others to navigate around them when seeking true collaborative partnership.
Untethering the Fix Mind.
So how does one avoid the inevitable stalemate and destructive aftermath that happens with brute, “I’m right and here’s why…” confidence displays?
Begin by setting aside the the need to be right and focusing instead on achieving the right outcome. When the goal changes to outcomes, one is able to see other options and listen with a more open mind because the personal stake is not pinned to individual rightness but rather collective success. One can also allow small skirmishes to be “lost” in favor of larger victories down the line.
Using the renewable energy example again, one way to engage a Conservative person might be to position renewable energy as a means of reducing cost, or supporting American free-market innovation, or even as an engine for jobs-of-the-future creation. These are ideas that Conservatives tend to champion. Whether someone buys solar panels to green the earth, save $500, or as a patriotic act, shouldn’t matter to the advocate of renewable energy if the outcome they seek is to have people use more renewable power. Seen this way, suddenly proving that the science of the Liberal agenda is right really doesn’t matter, which gives the Conservative side one less thing to fight over. So the discussion moves forward.
Any savvy salesman learns early on that when you are discussing an idea with someone it is easier to ‘sell it’ if it is framed in the context of the other party’s outlook. Why wouldn’t collaboration – which is the same dynamic interaction between people – not benefit from a similar empathetic approach? Salesmen who only talk about themselves don’t close many deals. And even a neophyte salesman knows that if a conversation is allowed to get to a point where it is loud and argumentative, there is no longer an option to sell anything. You might as well walk away.
Admittedly, freeing one’s self from the need to be right is not easy. We’re rewarded very early on by parents, teachers, coaches and other authority figures every time we’re “right” or “win” and often penalized when we’re “wrong” or “lose” (this despite the popularity of the platitude that mistakes are to be embraced). It’s not surprising then that the need to be right can creep in and make a mess of things – we’ve all been programmed for a long time to try to be right and to win. It takes a conscious effort to step back, remember what the real task at hand is, and to remind oneself of the importance of outcome over rightness.
Doing so begins with acknowledging a simple fact about us all – we are not right all the time. In fact, we are probably all more often “wrong” than right simply because few single individuals have access to all of the pertinent information needed to make the best decision possible. This is what makes collaboration so powerful – it combines the wisdom of many people to ensure the best outcome can be found.
It is the job of each individual then, to unlock the collaborative wisdom of a group by placing group value over self value. This often means abandoning the need to establish the individual wisdom of the self as the ‘right’ wisdom.
Or as noted in the quote at the outset of this piece, it means that despite whatever our pedigree pr expertise, we should keep a Beginner’s Mind that is open to and of full possibilities.