Posted by: Kristen Ridley | January 16, 2013

Can’t we all just get along?!

get alongScrolling through my Twitter feed today, I came across a link posted by friend and contact @jgombita to a blog post on the Harvard Business Review site. Titled “Dear Colleague, Put the Notebook Down” the post begins like this: “I knew right away, when you walked in here with a paper notebook — a paper notebook! — I realized that this meeting was not going to be a good use of our time.”

The post goes on to figuratively shake a finger – for eleven paragraphs – at those who elect to use this archaic [in the author's opinion] method, because THEY are wasting HER time by doing so. The author recommends instead that everyone should take notes online and suggests a digital notebook program instead.

Now, setting aside for the moment, the fact that late in the post the author discloses the fact that she has recently written an e-book on the very program she recommends so highly, as I read through the article, my eyes got wider, and my jaw dropped further with each succeeding paragraph at the level of condescension evident in the entire article’s tone.

When I got to the end, all I could think was: “Why??!!” Why would you approach this in this way?!

I mean, I’m a firm believer in everyone being completely entitled to their own opinions on everything, regardless of whether those opinions align with mine. In fact, I am very much interested in, and often very much enjoy, conversing with people whose opinions DO NOT agree with mine [just ask my friend and talented communicator, Steve Crescenzo - with whom I've had some verbal "debates" of epic proportions!]. There are huge opportunities in hearing opinions that diverge from yours because you might learn something you didn’t know, or have an opportunity to consider a position or approach you wouldn’t have otherwise done.

So, I have no issue with this writer voicing her opinion on the best way to take notes. No, my issue with this article is the clear and obvious tone of disrespect, and I’ll tell you why.  The ostensible intention of the author’s post – at least if you only look at the WORDS written – is to convince you why you are being inefficient and unproductive by taking notes with pen and paper as opposed to the computer-based program she likes. Now, I don’t know about you, but in my experience, the best way change someone’s mind about the best way to do something isn’t usually to tell them how old and foolish and completely incompetent their way is.

No, as a professional communicator, who’s day-to-day job frequently requires me to build understanding, gain agreement, and encourage collaboration for ideas and business recommendations that weren’t necessarily the listener’s first choice, I generally stay away from the: “Do you know how STUPID you are?!” approach. Instead, I generally – okay, ALWAYS! – go with the “I respect you and your position, so let’s see where we can find common ground and build a solution that everyone can support.” Crazy, I know, but with more than 12 years of doing it that way, I’ve just found it a more successful approach.

Whether HER way of taking notes is better than MY way [because, full disclosure - yes, I take notes with a pen and notebook, so I will let you factor in how much my reaction is coloured by that. Personally, I think it might slightly impact my opinion, but not to any great extent. After all, I'd never heard of this writer before today, so her opinions about MY note-taking approach won't have too much effect on the rest of my life. ;-)] isn’t really the issue here. What’s important is that she purports to be trying to convince the reader why the online note-taking approach is superior, but if the first attempt you make to convince me that your way is better than my way is to tell me – basically, in the tone of the article – that I’m an incompetent, unproductive idiot, and that my way of doing something that – let’s face it! – has virtually ZERO IMPACT on your life is causing you some sort of tremendous problem just isn’t likely to have a high success rate.

I really have to wonder if the author really intended to offend people and generate a firestorm based on how she chose to approach her article. Certainly, her replies to the comments – virtually every single one negative to her perspective, interestingly – suggest that she understood the likely reaction to her comments. So, one wonders if she did things this way quite intentionally, and is a proponent of the “if you say something really inflammatory, you’ll get lots of attention, and there’s no such thing as bad attention in the online world”. Certainly there are plenty of people who’ve made a career of taking that road – just ask Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan or Charlie Sheen!

But I haven’t found that approach to be terribly successful in the corporate world, which is, I believe, what the Harvard Business Review intends its materials to provide value to. My entire career as a corporate communicator has been spent in corporate settings, and my experience has been that collaboration and respect are far more successful at changing hearts and minds, especially if you aren’t the CEO or a very senior executive.

If there’s one thing almost everyone I’ve ever spoken with, worked with or had any business-focused involvement whatsoever with would agree on, it’s that treating someone respectfully, even when, heck, ESPECIALLY when you disagree with their opinion, is going to allow the discussion to move forward rather than becoming mired in hurt feelings and ruffled feathers.

I always try to keep in mind the following when a difference of opinion comes up in a business discussion:

1. What is the ultimate goal of this discussion? Focusing on the objective help to keep everyone’s emotions about the topic to the side and allows the discussion, options and debate to remain constructive, rather than becoming mired in “I don’t care for your attitude” or “Who do you think you ARE?!” which helps no one and accomplishes nothing.

2. Where can we find common ground? There is ALWAYS some portion of common ground if you really look for it, and if you are genuinely motivated to come up with a solution that’s best for the business, rather than being too caught up in “being right”. Business is about collaboration and compromise, and there are rarely situations where some sort of compromise isn’t part of the equation. The truly successful and accomplished colleagues I’ve worked with have always been willing to compromise and they tend to have the respect of most everyone around them because they will.

3. It isn’t all about you! I believe it was Harry Truman who said: “It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.” That is one of the best approaches to doing business successfully that I’ve ever heard. As human beings, we like to feel that we’re smart, and insightful and that the decisions we’ve come to after what we believe to be careful and thoughtful consideration are the best ones for everyone. But here’s the thing – the OTHER people thing the same thing about THEIR carefully thought-out decisions! When dealing with other people, it really is a good idea to be able to put yourself to the side and re-read #1 above. Because business isn’t about YOU, it’s about what will help the business as a whole succeed, and sometimes, that just isn’t gonna be what works best for you.

I always find it fascinating the melting pot of topics and opinions and personalities I come across on Twitter. I had a hard time finding value in it at first, but now, I don’t think I would want to give it up. What this particular article offered me, was the timely and important reminder that whatever else I may choose to do or not do, not only in my business relationships but in every relationship in my life, I hope I will always treat everyone I interact with respectfully, whether I agree with them or not. While the author of the finger-shaking article may think she’s clever or witty, or smarter than the rest of us, I would be surprised if her tone in that article generates a whole lot of sales of her book . . . at least if the comments on the article are any indication.

After all, as most of our grandmothers told us: “Sweetheart! You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” And like it or not, those old saws we got from granny usually turn out to be right on the money!

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