13 June 2008

Don't Fight the Music

As with most forms of art, there are those pieces of music or sculpture or painting that you'll dislike. Perhaps what they portray or teach don't match with your ideals of right and wrong. You'll disagree on a moral level. Perhaps they bring forth memories of the past. Maybe they just look or sound chaotic and simply don't make any sense to you. In all honesty you may not know why you don't like the art, but it might just be grating to you and make you want to turn away. Still, there was and often is a real, living, feeling, breathing human being full of senses, sympathies, misgivings, prejudice and paradoxes behind that creation. Behind all art, prose and poetry are the feelings approximated in the expressions of their craft. The ability to see and feel through the art into the heart of another person, this is the challenge and amazing quality of art. Everyone has a song and they are always singing it. They want to be heard, really listened to, and find out they are not alone.

Appreciating art because of the human behind it, has for me become a simile to working with people with whose opinions I disagree. My Dad would say, "Son, behavior has its reasons." I first remember him saying this when I worked as a Scout leader and got a front seat to the varied expressions of teenage boys. Invariably as I got to know each boy, I found many reasons for strongly held opinions, and behaviors. Often, the life experiences behind these behaviors even for young boys are deep and poignant.

I see similar issues when working in a team of people. The disagreements had in office discussions of the "obviously objective" technology problems often have their roots in other aspects of life much deeper and more powerful and often hidden. This is why teams that have learned to interact with each other "off the clock" as friends and treat each other as respected individuals, for who they are, today, are more successful at solving problems.

I like a good debate and enjoy the challenge of a difficult problem and opposing viewpoints. My experience at Microsoft was of a very "challenging" kind of culture. There you can't squeak out an idea without several counters and objections. This can be good, honest disagreement, but also can turn into ugly contention that yields no redeeming fruit. (It can also drown out innovation since ideas don't have time to germinate and grow and most importantly interact.) Everyone has different tolerance levels for this kind of discord and those who are naturally shy, not quick witted in a debate, or easily persuaded will often find themselves quieted and discontent. This is especially sad when that individual is full of really good ideas, ideas that need to be listened to and acted upon.

Certainly you can't change others, but how can you avoid the destructive discord? How do you know when a good debate has turned into a bad debate? I have noticed in myself the following warning signs:

Respect. If I don't have a deep respect, on a personal level, for the people with whom I'm working, a discussion can degrade incredibly fast. When I'm working with people like this, I have to keep on a higher state of alert.

Civility vs. Hostility. This includes the obvious things like pointing and repeating "you" a lot. In all things keep the discussion civil. Take the time to reinforce with sincerity that you think there's something you don't understand. Let them know you are pushing forward because you think there's something important worth understanding.

Desire to understand. When I sense my desire to understand dissipate and my desire to prove myself right increase, this is a sure indication that the discussion is heading down a destructive path. I can feel it. There's something not right in the air. I get tense, not relaxed. These are signs for me that I need to regroup, reevaluate and possibly try again later.

Judgement. Another indicator is if I am in my mind passing judgement on the individual. I can sense this when I find that I'm thinking about what I'm going to say next while they are still talking, or when I interrupt their thoughts and don't let them finish. I think I already know what they are going to say, so why wait it out? This kind of impetuous behavior indicates that I'm placing myself on a higher moral ground, and this lack of humility doesn't allow understanding, and without understanding, there's little possibility of unity or resolution.

I'm sure there are other even better ways to avoid the pointless and destructive arguments, but this is what I've found so far. In reality, everyone has a song. Listen to it. Find the art in it. Discover what it is saying and if possible the reasons behind the melody. Don't fight the music. There's a person in there waiting to be found.


cbuck said...

David, I'm pretty sure your post title is also a 1981 single by the band Toto.

For me, the operative word here is 'humility.' Management often attracts the Type A personality - and Microsoft certainly hires from that crowd - where humility is often forgotten in the quest to deliver results. With humility on both sides there will still be disagreements and communication breakdowns, but you will be more able to work through these issues. It's as simple as that.

I can look back at experiences where I tried to enforce my will versus humbly work to understand and be understood, and the results are burned bridges versus solid relationships.

It's us! The Powell's said...

Great sound advice. While reading your post my mind went to my work many times. I think I will print it out and refer to it time and again.
Send my love to your family...

Jeff said...

David, I really appreciated this article. I work for a Japanese company, with a lot of difficult and outspoken managers. It can be frustrating to maintain a civil conversation at times. But I thought that your comments on the need to respect the people you are working with - and act in a way that is respectful of them - is essential to doing business.

Good summary of dealing with people you wrote here. I look forward to seeing more of your insights.