The Benefit of Dissenting Opinion

I love vigorous debate, generally have an open mind, and actually enjoy having my thoughts and opinions challenged. If everyone always agreed with me conversation wouldn’t be very stimulating, and acquiring new knowledge and insight would certainly be more difficult. That said, I only really have the patience for intellectually honest discourse. I don’t care in the slightest about winning arguments, whether someone is right or wrong, or whether logic is sound or flawed, but I do care about motivation and intent. In the text that follows I’m going to ask you to do some soul searching – up for the challenge?

What follows might get a bit esoteric, but if you can get past the semantics of my philosophizing I believe you’ll find great value as I connect the dots on today’s topic. A few initial questions to ponder as we get started – How do you react when someone disagrees with you? Do you tuck tail and run desiring to avoid conflict at all costs? Do you dig-in your heels and prepare to defend your position to the death, all the while not really caring about how many casualties are incurred in the process? Or do you attempt to gain knowledge, understanding and perspective? Most importantly, do you genuinely engage in pursuit of the truth, or do you just wax eloquent in an attempt to justify your opinion or position?

It seems that in today’s world many people have lost the ability to disagree with someone, yet still respect them. If someone challenges your thinking and you immediately view them as an adversary there might be a problem with your perspective. If opposing views are worth the time and energy to debate, then they are worth a legitimate effort to gain alignment on perspective and resolution on position. However this will rarely happen if lines of communication do not remain open, and this in turn requires that candid, effective communication be maintained through a mutual respect and rapport.

Here’s my premise – few things benefit leaders in the ways that dissenting opinions do. The best leaders constantly seek out and engage those who challenge their thinking. They are curious, inquisitive, and have an insatiable appetite for learning. Most importantly, they truly care about what others think and why they hold the convictions they do. Whether you see opposing views and positions as conflict or opportunity says a lot about you as a person, and especially gives insightful commentary on who you are as a leader. Being able to discern and debate subjective positions with objectivity is an art form that must be present for effective leadership.

Respect and trust are earned by honoring commitments and doing the right thing regardless of opinion, sentiment or influence. It is through right acts, good decisions and honest communication that you earn respect and maintain rapport even with those who are not necessarily your greatest supporters. If you cannot lead someone with whom you disagree then you are not a leader – you’re a dictator. If you cannot surround yourself with those who challenge your thinking then you are not a leader – you’re an egomaniac.

Understanding and respecting other’s perceptions is such a critical part of being an effective leader that absent this ability I truly believe you cannot be effective in a leadership role. Great leaders take the time to understand the various constituencies and spheres of influence they come in contact with. “My way or the highway” thinking, and/or positional dictatorships rarely create the culture and performance demonstrated by winning organizations.

While I long ago reached the conclusion that perception does in fact matter, it may not be for the reasons that you might think.  I have found that the majority of people tend to be myopic with regard to perception…they understand their own  perceptions, but are quite often either ignorant or uncompassionate with regard to the perceptions of others. You see, the most important item to understand is that success as a leader has very little to do with your perception, but rather it has everything to do with the perception of others.

I’m not suggesting that you ignore your perception, subordinate your perception, or change your perception, but I am strongly suggesting that you take the time to both be aware of, and understand the perceptions of others. What I’ve just espoused has nothing to with compromising your values or being disingenuous. Rather my reasoning simply hypothisizes that if you’re not in touch with the perceptions of meaningful constituencies, your success will be impeded by your tunnel vision.

When it comes to authentic, transparent discourse, motivations matter. Those who place the care and regard of others above advancing their personal, positional, professional or political agendas will garner trust, respect and influence. You see it is precisely by not attempting to steamroll, manipulate or outsmart others, that you’ll be able to effectively convey your message even to an audience that might not otherwise be willing or receptive. Moreover, by having open and honest interactions you might actually learn something…

I can guarantee you that you’re not always right, that your thinking can be nuanced, that your knowledge can be deepened, that you can reframe and evolve your positions, and that your vision can be expanded, However these things don’t generally happen if you give monologues rather than participate in dialogues. If you don’t engage those who hold dissenting opinions and viewpoints in candid and open discussions you will struggle in developing to your true intellectual potential. Whether you agree or disagree is not the point…The point is that understanding the perceptions of others affords you a source of intelligence, a learning opportunity, and the ability to keep lines of communication open.

So, what do you think? Whether you agree or disagree I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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