My wife and I have our annual ballroom dance showcase this Friday, so this topic is especially timely for me. Hope you enjoy it.
I'm sitting in a long room with a 20-person meeting table. 3 classmates and I huddle at one end of the EPICS (engineering projects in community service) meeting room. Red and orange leaves fall against the floor-to-ceiling windows on one side, scribbles and sketches on the room-length whiteboard on the other. We discuss our latest ideas for meeting our community partner's needs, and how we could drive meaningful progress in one semester. I bring up an idea, and one of our group members, Ted (not his real name), shoots it down as impractical. I sit back and think, "man, why is he being so harsh? I hope I can contribute to this team."
A week later I had new ideas, and brought them up to the team again. This time, someone else questioned the idea, and I remember thinking: "hey, they just think that the idea's stupid, not that you're stupid." So I tweaked and reframed the idea to see if we could come to a better group decision.
I realized I could view his words as a criticism of my idea, not of me. By separating my identity from my idea, I was free to play with the idea. To refine it and make it better.
I wasn't under attack.
So, separate the criticism of your idea from a criticism of you. This is different than just having thick skin and not caring if someone makes fun of you. This is filtering feedback about your ideas from feedback about who you are as a person.
The idea I have is just a collaborative piece of art, a puzzle on a table with others sitting around it. I have a limited number of pieces I can bring to the table and my collaborators bring some only they can provide. It comes together to form something better than either of us could have created on our own.
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson write about this in their book, The Metaphors We Live By:
Try to imagine a culture where arguments are not viewed in terms of war, where no one wins or loses, where there is no sense of attacking or defending, gaining or losing ground. Imagine a culture where an argument is viewed as a dance, the participants are seen as performers, and the goal is to perform in a balanced and aesthetically pleasing way. In such a culture, people would view arguments differently, experience them differently, carry them out differently, and talk about them differently. But we would probably not view them as arguing at all: they would simply be doing something different. It would seem strange even to call what they were doing "arguing." In perhaps the most neutral way of describing this difference between their culture and ours would be to say that we have a discourse form structured in terms of battle and they have one structured in terms of dance.
How can we dance with our ideas, and what changes when we decide to do so?
No longer do you stop at first order consequences of your ideas because you're scared to subject them to scrutiny. You pour gas on the fire of your creativity because you allow them to be stood up against the inspection of others. Fear of attack stops us from thinking through things. Separating my idea from my identity makes me not have to be afraid.
You take a one-dimensional view on creativity where you're working alone and move to a multi-faceted, generative view where sharing and working on each other's ideas becomes the norm. Every conversation becomes an opportunity to learn and grow. Every conversation becomes an opportunity to compound toward improvement. Every conversation becomes an opportunity to inch forward in our understanding.
Next time you get into an argument, watch your counterpart's face when, instead of responding with equal aggression, you ask: "may I have this dance?"