This post originally appeared in my newsletter, Borrowed, Learned, & Thought. BL&T is a weekly newsletter sent on Mondays. In every edition, I share weekly themes and progress in running an agency business/team and doing my best to live a good life. Published posts do not include all details shared via email to subscribers. Subscribe here.
"I am learning, as I make my way through my first continent, that it is remarkably easy to do things, and much more frightening to contemplate them."
From "Jupiter's Travels" by Ted Simon
Think before you say what you think.
These seven words were my mantra as a kid. I was outspoken. At a young age, I noticed that when I spoke impulsively, my words often got misunderstood. They may even get me in trouble. I saw the phrase on a poster in my classroom and asked the teacher if I could take it home. It resonated with me. I liked the idea of this constant reminder every morning when I woke up and every night when I went to sleep. I even remember doodling it in my notebooks.
For years now, I've carried the belief that complex ideas are most effective when presented verbally with proper framing. This approach gives the presenter time to prepare and control to guide the narrative for the listener.
At work, this can translate to presenting creative exploration to a client early on in the design process. We walk them through how we arrived at the solution and answer questions along the way. We do our best to make the presentation feel like a conversation. A presentation is successful when the client celebrates our progress, understands our thinking, and overall, reacts with constructive remarks. We call this "collaboration" because we consider it an open dialogue with our clients, with whom we share a common goal.
In my recent pursuit to better understand what contributes to a productive meeting, I am beginning to see that this approach is flawed. If we want to make ideas stronger through effective collaboration, this is not the way.
True collaboration gives equal weight to every collaborator. By insisting that we share our ideas verbally, we are immediately putting our clients at a disadvantage. We crave a meaningful interaction, yet the client hasn't had more than a few minutes to think before they say what they think. We may get lucky, and the client reacts with "initial thoughts," but many will stay quiet: "This is a lot to process. We'll talk this through internally and get back to you." The outcome? Another meeting to discuss feedback. The question: how do we have the second meeting, first?
While this is true of client interactions, I see parallels to my interactions with the team and friends and family. In these situations, I discover a new insight entirely.
When I'm looking for feedback on a big decision or idea, my instinct is to meet or get on a call to talk it through. Deep down inside, I'm opting for the easy way out. I haven't fully formed a perspective. Now, I'm leaning on someone else to help me fill it out. As the listener experiences my ideas for the first time, they will attempt to balance listening with thinking. Inevitably, some thoughts will get lost in the exchange. When I pause, they'll react. I'll react. The cycle continues. Body language and tone of voice are weighed as much, if not more than the ideas themselves. If what I'm looking for is an objective and thoughtful perspective, this is not it. By the end, we may be in a new place, but do we know how we got there?
None of this is to say that some form of verbal communication is not essential for collaboration. We are social beings. What I'm interested in is how to make those interactions more thoughtful, and as a result, more valuable for all involved.
I imagine a world where instead of jumping into a conversation, we spend time with our ideas. We challenge them. We find the flaws. We capture the outcome of this exploration in writing and share it with our listeners. We give them the space to think, to truly think before they tell us what they think. They write back. We now know where each other stands, and only then, we make time to discuss and go deeper.
When we meet, we're engaged, free from the distraction of processing a new idea for the first time. Active listening is also essential for collaboration. When we give each other more space to develop our perspectives on our own, we invite more active listening when we're together. We can focus on clarifying perspectives through smart questions and propel the idea forward, closer to our shared vision.
Lesson? Time spent alone with our ideas makes time together more valuable. Take the time to develop an idea before you ask others to understand it. Give others time to develop their perspective on your idea before asking them to share it.
Where am I providing input without giving myself time to think?
Where am I expecting input without giving others time to think?