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‘Well, That’s a Dumb Thing to Say’

In line this morning to vote, I heard a man explaining to the person behind him how President Obama wants gas prices to increase to $10 per gallon. “He wants it, you understand, because that’s the only way he can get people to go for this green energy thing of his.”

OK, so there’s an underlying logic here. If gasoline were still hovering around the $1 per gallon mark, no one would be talking about green energy because it would be cost prohibitive compared to the cheap energy we’d already have. Even with that in mind, however, the gentleman’s statement was profoundly stupid. I don’t care which side of the aisle you’re on; no one wants gas prices so high that the economy would grind to a halt.

My line-mate followed up his statement by explaining how President Obama’s handling of Benghazi was a disgrace. I have to confess here, I don’t pretend to know much about the intricacies of the Benghazi incident, so that’s not what struck me. What struck me was the basis for this fellow’s professed knowledge. “I have two nephews in the Marines, so I can tell you…”

Again, profoundly stupid. I have close friends who are auto mechanics, but that doesn’t mean I could change a transmission…or even switch out a car battery for that matter.

There is a business point to be made here. The point is this: sometimes, maybe even often, the facts and the sources of information do not matter. I know deep in my heart that if I had turned around to debate this gentleman on the issues, we would have gotten nowhere. Perhaps the discussion would have been heated, and perhaps not. Regardless, however, neither one of us would have changed the other’s mind.

Would each of us have walked away with a greater respect for the other’s point of view?  Maybe.

Would each of us have walked away thinking of the other “what a jerk?” Also maybe.

Like it or not, this is a decision that business people have to make each and every day. People often come into conversations with deeply held beliefs. The issue does not have to be one of such gravitas as a presidential election. It could revolve around a billing dispute or one of a thousand he-said-she-said incidents that crop up in every week of customer interaction.

The question, then, is how to handle it.

In my line of work, I frequently find myself talking to judges. These are not conversations of equal footing. The Judge has the last word. So when confronted with the Judge’s deeply held belief, a head-to-head confrontation is something to be avoided.  Instead, a “yes, but” strategy is usually the better tactic. If the immediate response contains a validation of the other’s point of view, the follow-up, if artfully handled, can be crafted to fit the other’s world view into one’s own.

When addressing a Judge, the challenge becomes finding the areas of compatibility, rather than jumping in at the point of disagreement. In all my years of practice, I have not found a more successful tactic when confronting opposing views held by those important to me. And although I can’t say, of course, that it is uniformly successful (after all, what is?) I can say that to sincerely acknowledge the validity of the opposing point of view before pressing one’s own, gives one the best shot to prevail.

This basic understanding and respect is what I teach my students. It’s what I preach to those in my firm. And I’d like to say it is what I uniformly practice…but I can’t. There have been times, one lately that stays top of mind, at which I did not take the time to acknowledge the other’s position before leaping into the defense of my own. Perhaps, in the heat of the moment, I felt that vindication was more important, or that winning an issue trumped history and a relationship I treasure to this day.

Whatever the reason, to this day I hold fast to my truth and my client to hers. The relationship continues, but bruised. We both feel we were right, and in a way we both were, but there’s no solace there. I am responsible for damage that need not have been inflicted.

I wish I had taken the time to offer respect first.

And no matter what results are announced tonight, I think there’s no better time to remember that lesson than now.