The importance of a good argument

My wife and I had been dating for almost a year. I had known for some time that she was “the one” and I was getting ready to propose. I met up with a friend for lunch who was asking me how things were going. After sharing with him that I was planning to propose soon, he asked me a surprising question: “Do you and your girlfriend argue well?”

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Photo by Gratisography on Pexels.com

It was an important question and I had to give it some real thought and reflect on it before responding. I had learned from reading books like The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni that conflict can bring teams closer together. Lencioni also writes about how you can have positive conflict when you have trust.

Further, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his weekly covenant and conversation series, teaches that, “there is something holy about argument.” In one edition of the series, called “God Loves Those Who Argue,” he writes:

In Judaism there is something holy about argument. Why so? Only God can see the totality of truth. For us, mere mortals who can see only fragments of the truth at any one time, there is an irreducible multiplicity of perspectives. We see reality now one way, now another…The different voices of priest and prophet…philosopher and mystic, historian and poet, each capture something essential about the spiritual life.

Further, Rabbi Sacks describes two kinds of arguing:

  • Arguing for the sake of victory
  • Arguing for the sake of truth

Arguing for the sake of victory is all about winning. It involves listening to respond instead of listening to understand. It’s winning the war of “one-liners” and trying to destroy your opponent while trying to simultaneously discredit his argument.

Arguing for the sake of truth is essentially the opposite. It’s arguing to make something better, to reveal truth that comes from a variety of perspectives and views. It means putting the pieces of truth together from the same side of the table. It is arguing to make something better.

Arguing for the sake of truth even glorifies the non-prevailing side of an argument because it helps reveal truth and expands the knowledge of all parties.

In Rabbi Sacks’ covenant and conversation about, “The First Populist”, he writes:

What matters…is why the argument was undertaken and how it was conducted. An argument not for the sake of Heaven is one that is undertaken for the sake of victory. An argument for the sake of Heaven is undertaken for the sake of truth. When the aim is victory…both sides are diminished…But when the aim is truth, both sides gain. To be defeated by the truth is the only defeat that is also a victory.

Recognizing the merits of arguing for the sake of truth, how do we, as leaders, create the environment to encourage arguments of this kind?

To answer the question, it is important for us to be aware of the obstacles to doing so and then taking steps to overcome them.

First, psychological science tells us that power is inversely related to perspective taking. A study by Adam Galinsky and Maurice Schweitzer has shown that leaders are more likely to prioritize their own perspective on issues. Listening to others first, before speaking, is one way to put other people first. Often times, if the leader speaks first, the rest of the group may tend to go along with him so as not to seem like they disagree.

Second, leaders run fast. Sometimes we believe we have to do something or believe we already know the right answer. People on our team who challenge the leader can be seen as a nuisance or an impediment to progress. Leaders must fight the urge to move too fast. Good leaders know when to slow down, encourage discussion, and ask good questions of the team to uncover “truth”.

Third, some individuals are simply less comfortable with conflict. Developing the muscle of moderating a disagreement within our teams can help us get more comfortable.

Fourth, we may believe we have more of a complete picture than anyone else on our teams because of our leadership position. We take for granted what our team may know relative to what we know. Being aware of this tendency is crucial because it is often untrue. Just because a leader has more of a “bigger picture” does not mean that the picture is a complete one. Anyone who has been through a merger or acquisition knows that often the people who execute the deal do not really understand how to achieve the desired synergies in implementation. Implementation is typically where mergers and acquisitions fail.

Finally, we must commit to practice speaking up and demonstrating the desired behavior for our teams. Speaking up, respectfully and in pursuit of truth, will show others that they can be comfortable sharing their perspective even if it differs from the rest of the group. Encouraging arguments for the sake of truth not only contribute to reaching the best possible outcomes, but also helps to build the team’s trust.

To answer the original question, yes – my wife and I do argue well. We listen to each other and resolve conflicts with a spirit of love and trying to make things better. Arguing is one of the best ways we get to understand each other and, at the end, through our love and respect, we always win.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Arguments for the sake of truth can be productive and important to reaching the best conclusion for your organization. Leaders that foster an environment where these types of arguments take place can encourage teamwork, trust, and positive outcomes.

Customer Service or Customer Experience?

One of the recurring topics of this blog relates to, “How we treat each other.” I am passionate about improving the patient experience at hospitals because I believe it has powerful implications for how we treat each other. If clinicians can demonstrate compassion, courtesy, and kindness during a difficult moment in a patients’ life, imagine how that level of care could impact how that patient will treat others in the future. Like other social epidemics, I believe that kindness can catch on as well.

A colleague of mine at Adventist HealthCare shared this 17 minute video with me. In the video, Fred Lee, the author of If Disney Ran Your Hospital, gives a TED talk about the difference between customer service and customer experience.

Lee defines a service as, “Labor done for me that I would otherwise do for myself”. He goes on to share and explain how an experience is far more emotional, difficult to measure, and impossible to fully control through mechanisms like scripting. Defining the journey of a patient as an experience allows us to embrace the fact that it doesn’t mean our patients have to be happy all the time when they are under the care of a hospital.

Lee uses a helpful analogy in the talk to explain this idea. When we go to the theater, sometimes we go to see plays and musicals that make us happy, while other times we see dramas or tragedies that touch our emotions in a different way. Both instances are experiences that speak to the human condition, not necessarily only positive emotions.  Lee describes this as, “We in the hospital business have the job of meeting the emotional needs of a family going through fear, pain and even tragedy together.”

Further, he says that “A hospital without compassion is like a trip to Disney without fun.”

When hospitals and other companies deliver an experience, it resonates with the consumer emotionally. In a hospital setting, emotion is already present. How clinicians understand the emotions of the patient and anticipate the patient’s needs shows how much they care and that they are attentive to the situation.

Lee tells a story of a caregiver who comes to take blood from a patient. In the first scenario, the caregiver follows a script. In the second, the care giver provides an experience. He quotes a Gallup organization study that found that just using the word “gentle” reduced a patient’s pain when receiving an injection. Small touches can radically change a patient’s care experience but it has to be individualized – not every interaction will be the same or have the same effect for every patient.

Lee posts this quote during his talk: “Experiences occur with any individual who has been engaged in a personal and memorable way…on an emotional, physical, intellectual, or even spiritual level. The result? No two people can have the same experience – period.” B. Joseph Pine III, The Experience Economy

Since experience is so individualized, it involves developing active listening skills, focus, compassion and empathy. Conveniently, these are the same skills that we can all demonstrate on a daily basis to each other to make the world a better place, not just in the work setting. While health care is a powerful setting to deliver an incredible experience, we can all be human experience ambassadors with our friends, family, colleagues, neighbors, and even strangers.

The first step is to want to make a difference in this way. Will you join me in being a human experience ambassador?

Getting on the same side of the table

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People belong in the category of must read classics like How to Win Friends and Influence People. Covey outlines lessons that are important for everyone to internalize and it is a great starting point for leaders. The first time I read it, I listened to the audiobook, which Covey narrates himself. It’s a wonderful way to take in the lessons in the book because you can hear his emphasis at different points.

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People are:

  1. Be proactive
  2. Begin with the end in mind
  3. Put first things first
  4. Think win/win
  5. Seek first to understand, then to be understood
  6. Synergize
  7. Sharpen the saw

But that list only barely touches the surface of the wisdom and life lessons outlined in the chapters devoted to each individual habit. For the purposes of this post, I want to focus on one that I found to be especially vital.

7HabitsIn the world of patient experience, we talk a lot about communication. Communication with the patient, with appropriate family members, and between clinicians caring for that patient is an area of opportunity for the industry. Covey talks about a deep communication practice in his chapter on habit 5, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”.

In habit 5, Covey touches on several key concepts including, “Empathic listening,” “Diagnose before you prescribe,” and “Understanding and perception”. These skills require self-awareness and the ability to pause and reflect on our behavior.

In the section on “Diagnose before you prescribe,” Covey provides the example of an eye exam. He writes that the doctor does not just take off his glasses and say, “Use these, they’ve worked for me for years!” He takes the time to help the patient explain what they see and he fits the corrective lenses for them.

Too often, we do the opposite. I catch myself in this pattern of behavior too often. Just because something worked in a situation we faced, does not mean that the same strategy and tactics will work for another person with different skills and different life experiences. Taking the time to diagnose what is going on will help us be better leaders and better people.

My favorite part of habit 5 though is the section called, “Four Autobiographical Responses.” In this part of the book, Covey summarizes a hypothetical conversation between a parent and child who wants to drop out of school. Covey presents the same scenario in three different ways. In the first, the parent tries to guide the child by lecturing based on the parent’s own experience. In the second scenario, the reader sees the child’s impression of the conversation and how the child feels ignored and misunderstood.

In the final scenario, the parent asks the child the right questions, listens to understand and does not pass judgement or lecture. By being more open, slowing down, and learning what the child is going through, the parent learns that the child wants to drop out of school because of a recently diagnosed learning disability. By listening and interacting with the child in an empathetic way, the parent learns what is really behind the child’s desire to leave school.

What happens next in the story is remarkable. The parent and child begin to problem solve together. Covey calls this, “getting on the same side of the table.” This concept spoke to me. Lately, I have been trying to find as many ways as I can to “get on the same side of the table” with the people I serve.

Getting to the same side of the table means problem solving, having healthy discussion, and collaborating in a way that builds the relationship, not taxes it. The more we can be on the “same side of the table,” rather than debate or disagree to win an argument, the better the world can become.

KEY TAKEAWAY: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is a foundational book in practicing leadership. Habit 5 discusses how we can “get on the same side of the table” with other people by engaging in”Empathic listening”, “Diagnose before you prescribe”, and “Understanding and perception”.


The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is available for purchase on Amazon for $30.00 (does not include Prime discount)

Podcast: Work Life with Adam Grant

I have become a junkie for podcasts and audio books. I’ve come across many good ones (NPR has several like How I Built This with Guy Raz as just one example), but there is one podcast in particular that is exceptional and I am recommending it for you to check out.

WorkLife with Adam Grant just finished its second season and it is publishing a couple of bonus episodes. You may have heard of Adam Grant. He is an organizational psychologist who teaches at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also the best-selling author of books like Give and Take and Originals.

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This unique podcast combines Adam Grant and TED to share insights into innovative companies who take steps to make work better. The podcasts begin with Adam Grant describing his job as “I am an organizational psychologist. I study how to make work not suck”. The practices in the podcast often time introduce new skills including, “How to remember anything” and “How to love criticism”.

Grant also explores companies who have taken steps to do things differently. Some of these companies use direct feedback, others take stands on social issues, and some have even completely gotten rid of scheduled meetings to boost productivity. These case studies are useful to encourage us to challenge our assumptions about our own work place.

Many of us accept what has been given to us when it comes to work. Sometimes it can feel like we are living an episode of the TV show The Office or the movie Office Space. What I particularly enjoy about WorkLife is that Grant challenges the listeners to think differently about many of the practices at work that we may otherwise take for granted.

We should be constantly challenging our assumptions about how we work so that we can improve the work environment for our employees and also keep it current and productive. This podcast has been a helpful way to learn about what companies across several different industries are doing to stay fresh. I can’t wait for Season 3!

KEY TAKEAWAY: We should be constantly identifying and challenging our assumptions about work. By learning about other workplaces and understanding the ethos, not just the gimmicks, we can make our work lives happier and more productive. 

The 25 cent lesson

Since I can remember, my grandfather Dr. Leonard Binn, has given me the same lecture almost every time I see him. My grandfather is almost 92-years old, but the topic of the lecture remains the same. When I was growing up, he would always end the lecture by handing me a quarter, 25 cents.

“Jonathan, what is the difference between knowledge and wisdom?”, he would ask 8 year old me. At that time, both knowledge and wisdom were the furthest thing from my young mind. If I had a choice, I probably would have just gone back downstairs and watched more taped Washington Redskins football games, movies about baseball, or gone outside to play catch with my Dad or a friend.

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A recent family photo. My grandfather is in the center wearing the University of Michigan hat (we love him anyway)

However, I’ve been recently reflecting a lot on these early lectures. Sometimes facetiously, I think that a 25 cent lesson on compound interest may have been more practical. But, in all seriousness, my grandfather was making a worthy point. Theoretically, knowledge begets wisdom, but I have found that in practicality, wisdom is elusive, while knowledge is readily accessible.

Let’s look at the age of the internet right now. Ordinary people have access to vast knowledge and education. Recently, I have been spending time on platforms like coursera, edX, Khan Academy, and Udacity. Not to mention Wikipedia, google, or the now almost effortless ask of the closest Amazon Alexa, we have access to boundless amounts of knowledge. More than any time in history, knowledge is easily accessible for most people. If knowledge begets wisdom, we should be in the most peaceful, humble, and thinking for the collective well-being time in history as well.

Yet, we remain so far from that reality. The tragic events in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday are simply the latest manifestation of the counter to the knowledge begets wisdom argument. One explanation is that the nature of wisdom is changing. In one of the latest episodes of Adam Grant’s WorkLife podcast, one of the guests explained that historically, change happened slowly so that wisdom could be obtained from knowledge and experience.

In the past, we depended on the wisdom of our elders for practical purposes like to tell us what was poisonous and what was safe to eat. They knew because either they had learned it or witnessed somebody become sick from eating the poisonous food. In the 20th century, our elders could teach us about their job search and provide us career guidance that was current and valuable. But, as careers with a single company became few and far between and the nature of retirement savings changed, that advice has become less valuable because of the rate of change in the current work environment now.

To me, wisdom today is mostly about judgment. Not to be confused with being judgmental, wisdom is more about how we process and understand our knowledge (what we know), pursue our curiosity (what we hope to know) and make sense of the world in the context of values. Using judgment, and then acting in a way that incorporates others wants, needs and emotions, even “in the moment”, is today’s wisdom. It is being deliberate in the way we behave based on what we know.

That definition, however, is depressing. I can’t help but think of leaders, politicians, pundits, and social media personalities. They have access to thought leaders and knowledge, but are in an environment that constantly appears to lack wisdom. Navigating the fast changing world and the hyperactive news-cycle encourages a “just get through the day” type behavior.

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Me and my Father-in-Law, Dr. Joel Nathanson, after we successfully ran the Marine Corps 10k in 2018

Luckily, there is an important corollary here, that I learned courtesy of my Father-in-Law, Dr. Joel Nathanson. Last weekend, our family celebrated the 50th anniversary of his Bar Mitzvah. At synagogue, he shared with the congregation that he recently identified the difference between hope and faith. Hope, he said, is passive. We hope something will happen for us, as if just the thought will make it so. Faith, on the other hand, is active. We have to believe that if we put in the effort, we will work to make it so, or believe that it will all work out in the end.

If we are going to have faith that wisdom can help us create a better life, a better family, a better business, a better community, or a better world, we have to live it. By using good judgement and thinking before we act, we can contribute to making our world a better place. It is the job of a leader to be wise when others, who may be knowledgeable, are not. It is the leader who acts with faith as he makes decisions for the company and the team. Knowledge won’t carry the day and hope is not a strategy.

KEY TAKEAWAY: The nature of wisdom is changing. Wisdom is how we process and understand our knowledge (what we know), pursue our curiosity (what we hope to know) and make sense of the world in the context of values. Faith is an active way of making the world better. If we have faith that others will pursue wisdom, we must demonstrate wisdom ourselves.