I liked Don a lot. He was a mentor and, later, a friend. He had been a supervisor for 20-odd years; I was new in the role.
But for a while he frustrated the (crap) out of me.
Especially when I had new ideas. I would rush into his office, full of certainty and enthusiasm, and describe my latest plan. Facts. Figures. Reasoning.
I would lay it all out for him. Then, after my big finish, I would say, "It's great, right? Let's do it!"
Don would cross his arms. Scowl. Stare at a point over my shoulder. Finally he would shake his head and say, "It's too much. I just don't see it. No."
It happened every time. I decided Don was past his supervisory sell-by date. Too old-school. Too set in his ways. Too "That's not how we do things around here."
Granted, Don was old-school. He was somewhat set in his ways.
But he was also, in spite of his years of service -- maybe because of his years of service -- a little insecure. He was the old guard while I, and a few other "young" supervisors, were less respectful of his experience than we should have been.
New ideas? Our ideas? They weren't the problem. The signal our new ideas represented, that his perspective, methods, and experience were no longer valuable, was the problem. So was the signal sent by my approach.
Naturally, Don pushed back. Not because I was wrong, although sometimes I definitely was. But because pushing back helped him regain a sense of actual and, just as crucially, emotional control.
To make things worse, I didn't take into account how Don liked to process information and make decisions. He liked to think. He liked to reflect.
He wasn't a "let's bat some ideas back and forth" kind of guy; he liked to go away and work through an issue so he could share thoughtful, fully formed opinions. I put him on the defensive by demanding an immediate answer. (I didn't need an answer right away; I just wanted one.)
Denied time to reflect, he instinctively fell back on the safe choice: Saying no, and sticking to the status quo.
So one day I tried a different approach. "Don," I said, "I have an idea I think makes sense, but I'm sure there are things I'm missing. If I run it by you, could you think about it for a day or two and then tell me what you think?"
He loved that approach. It showed I valued his wisdom and experience. It showed I didn't just want him to agree; I genuinely wanted his opinion. It gave him time to process my idea the way he felt most comfortable.
Part of the process. Part of the solution. Respected. Valued. Involved.
That's how Don wanted to feel.
That's how everyone wants to feel.
By turning my ideas into a question ("Can you think about it for a day or two and let me know what you think?") instead a statement ("It's great, right? Let's do it!") I kept Don from feeling defensive.
I didn't try to tell him what he should think. Or what we should do. I asked for his advice, input, and ideas.
And while I didn't know it at the time, science agrees with that approach. As Adam Grant points out, a 2006 study published in Social Influence shows the importance of the "question-behavior effect" as a social influence technique: Asking questions, instead of providing answers, can overcome people's defensiveness -- and make them more likely to be open to agreement.
Ask, don't tell.
Don't push for instant agreement if the other person's personality makes that unlikely. (Don't ask for thought and reflection if the other person loves to make quick decisions and move on.)
In short, don't think about how you want to present an idea or how you want other people to respond.
Think about how they work best. What makes them comfortable. What will make them feel valued, respected, and included.
That way the best ideas can actually rise to the top.
And, along the way, be improved by people who will want to help you lift them.