When I was about six months into my current job at Monsanto, a man named Fred gave me some advice that I will never forget.
I bristled at the advice because I knew with absolute certainty that Dr. Fred Perlak, one of the key scientists who developed the world-changing GMO Bt cotton, had a lifetime love affair with his work. The love he had for his work was something I developed an admiration, even a longing, for.
We were sitting on a bench looking over a small reflection pool on the Monsanto campus. Fred always spoke quietly and slowly, but I was accustomed to his mild-mannered, yet strong words. He had taken me on as a mentee and he spent long hours each week teaching me genetics, chemistry, and biotech history, and on rare occasion he would cautiously offer me life advice. I waited for him to finish the thought.
He didn’t even have to look at me to know that I was frustrated with his comments. I felt like he was scolding me.
I was hurt because I could feel him correcting my path; to acknowledge his point would mean admitting I was doing something wrong, so I turned the conversation in another direction. We left that bench without anything really being resolved, but over time his words began to fall into place in my mind.
When we join a team, a company, or a tribe, our natural inclination is to pick a side and fight for that side. It is easy to hear countering ideas and dismiss them as being ideologically or financially motivated. If I convince myself that someone’s opinion shouldn’t count, I don’t have to grapple with how their point of view may challenge or even change me. But the most valuable thoughts are not the ones I already know; they are the ones I didn’t think of on my own.
I began to spot times when I did not even bother to read a countering viewpoint because of the person saying it. I realized that I was using all the mental shortcuts that I resented in others. I realized that I had to change.
I saw that my weakest moments, the points when I was the most dismissive of others, were when I thought my role was to defend my side. No one had ever asked me to do that; it was just what I was naturally drawn to doing, but it was self-limiting.
I changed by not trying to win arguments. Instead, I try to tell people, in as high fidelity as I can, exactly what I think is true and then invite others to find cracks in my model of truth. If you ask your critics to point out when you are wrong, they will definitely take you up on that request and that is exactly where the most learning can occur.
A communicator’s greatest value comes in the form of articulating what is true, not in making people believe something is true. Your critics are the most likely to know things that you don’t know and are the people most likely to help you discover what is true. Instead of falling in love with my side, I try to find and listen to the critics that I respect the most. Those critics are the ones that help all of us find what is really true–and maybe I don’t love them, but I do know how to utilize what they bring me.
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