Musings – Part 22

Musings – Part 22

Getting Advice.  Who among us hasn’t asked for advice from an expert and then looked for another when we didn’t like the answer we got? Who do you tend to search out when you don’t know what to do? Someone who generally gives you the counsel you want to hear – who confirms the correctness of what you already think or hope is the truth on the matter in doubt? Or is it a trusted contrarian who can give you plausible, evidence-based arguments why your current beliefs on the issue at hand are senseless or idiotic? In essence, one who has the courage to tell you what you need to know, not what you want to hear?

Our greatest fear when faced with difficult choices is the frightful thought we could be wrong. This is especially so in an age of increasing misinformation, polarization of views and exponential technological growth. We’re bombarded daily with opaque, inconsistent, contradictory and politically partisan commentary that inundates, perplexes and even angers us. With our access to vast universes of data, we’re forced to figure out what facts we should base our decisions on and what to ignore, when to do the research for ourselves, and how to find those whose knowledge we can trust. Given these unyielding forces, does anyone know what reality, certitude and risk actually are?

Successful people are good advice takers. No one is smart enough, objective enough or experienced enough to consistently know what to do or how best to do it. While countless sources of expertise on virtually any topic surround us, getting the right advice in the right way at the right time should be a matter of design, not good fortune. The Stanford graduate school of business claims that “all top-ranked CEOs in America today” have at least one external, reliable strategic advisor. In Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi’s classic study of “91 of the most creative people in the world,” he noted that every one of them had an executive performance coach or a mentor to challenge and keep them at the top of their game.

Choose advisors who genuinely want to work with you and with whom you genuinely want to share your problems; who are committed to their unique craft and not just pursuing revenue opportunities; who will make the most efficient use of your time together, will work on sharpening your interpersonal skills and leadership competencies; who are good listeners, can keep confidences and provide insightful, candid, practical, truth-to-power feedback; and who have a proven track record of competence, reliability and in-the-trenches knowledge – in other words, they’ve been in your shoes before and learned by doing and often failing.

A good advisor is someone who might scare you a bit but who isn’t a jerk. To sustain a relationship with a professional, you need to be worthy of their time and fully forthcoming. If you don’t, you’re likely to be history. Don’t be a nuisance and never ask a question Google can answer for you. Be curious, keep them in the loop, stay relevant and fresh. Embrace the fact that learning never ends and make them proud of you.

To find the pertinent signals buried amidst today’s incessant and overwhelming noise, we need to avoid the echo-chambers of like-minded people. We need to be connected with those we disagree with but with whom we can have real, respectful and robust conversations about those differences. Experts aren’t always right; no one is. But the good ones are worth the time. Should you be worried about the expense of learning new things, the alternative is to opt for ignorance. If we want to reduce uncertainty and find competitive advantage in a world of increasingly plentiful but undifferentiated good and bad information, we must actively search for the true contrarians who can confront our feel-good rationalizations and expand our search for even smarter possibilities.

Saying No.  Warren Buffet once said the difference between successful people and very successful people is that the latter say ‘no’ to almost everything. They live by their priorities rather than those of others. For most, saying ‘yes’ is an ingrained, chronic people-pleasing habit learned early in life. They say ‘yes’ when they want to say ‘no’ for a lot of reasons. They don’t want to feel guilty about possibly offending or disappointing others. They don’t want to appear selfish, unhelpful or unlikeable or be seen as irrelevant or unimportant.

Yet the ability to say ‘no’ when we don’t want to say ‘yes’ is both liberating and validating. Done properly, it can boost our productivity, improve relationships and engender a satisfying calmness. People pleasers think the happiness of others is more important than their own. They believe they’re somewhat responsible for how others may choose to feel or act – which, in reality, is a consequence of circumstances largely beyond anyone’s control but our own. Nonetheless, they tend to believe their feelings, time, needs, opinions, problems and goals are less worthy.

The ability to say ‘no’ without causing hard feelings strengthens our sense of self-worth and elevates our credibility in the eyes of others. In every relationship, a degree of friction is inevitable. Harmony isn’t a given; it’s a byproduct of skill, effort, understanding and patience. Humans have conflicting opinions, needs and desires. We do seek approval and validation but we don’t need it from everyone. Especially from emotional bullies and blackmailers who prey on those more prone to feel guilt, fear, shame or embarrassment by saying what they really want to say. And doing so repeatedly, eventually takes a toll – leaving them feeling irritated, cynical and miserable. They become the victims of an inability to assert their own preferences.

Assertiveness is the skill of building a repertoire of magical responses to tame pushy people who think their priorities are more important than ours. We can all be more courteous and respectful while also being assertive about our own interests. When you can’t set reasonable boundaries, some will invade your space with impunity. The art of saying ‘no’ with comfort and confidence begins by strengthening your muscle of resistance to the things you’d rather not want to do.

If you suffer from this affliction – giving knee-jerk ‘yes’ responses to every request – practice saying ‘no’ in small steps. Withhold an immediate reply and assess what you really want to say and how best to frame it. Speak deliberately: don’t hedge, waffle, stall or equivocate. Be clear, honest, respectful and brief about your reasons. Like everything else, practice doesn’t make you perfect but it does make you better. And, in time, you build the capacity to flex your ‘no’ muscle.

If you fear the finality of a ‘no’ might offend, then find other creative (but truthful) ways to say it. “I can’t commit to that right now because I’m focused on ….” Or “I’d like to help but I’m swamped with this project.” Or “People are depending on me to finish this, … If I abandon it to help you, I’ll be letting them down.” Don’t say “I can’t” (because you probably can); just honestly tell them “I don’t want to.” We are not obligated to appease the unrealistic expectations of others. If that doesn’t make sense to you, then you’ll never live the life to which you aspire.

When we respect people, we tell them the truth. When we fudge, feign or contort, we treat them like children. If you do want to be helpful, then say “I’m going to pass. But you might ask ....” To those who don’t get or like the new you, say “I know you dislike hearing this and are inclined to persist, but I’m not going to change my mind.” Their persistence is simply a consequence of knowing you will eventually accede to their wishes, as you’ve always done. Learning how to deal with pushy people makes you less of a pushover. Unless that’s how you want to live your life.