You and Kara are designers of a product at a mid-size company. Kara wants to add an icon to your product. You think the icon is wrong. You’ve added similar icons in the past and they were complete failures with your customer. You feel responsible for preventing Kara from making the same costly mistake.
But you are a smart and socially conscious human being. You know that you can’t just go to Kara’s desk and tell them “Kara, the icon is wrong.” Kara would get defensive and argue for the icon. The discussion would devolve into an argument. You know that no matter how well-intentioned you are if Kara interprets what you say as an attack they’ll dig in their heels, and then they won’t learn your icon wisdom. How do you get Kara to do what you know is best for Kara?
For me, Kara was a real person. As much as I tried to convince Kara the icon was wrong, I couldn’t. No matter what I did, Kara switched to a defensive stance. Heels were dug. I found myself having an argument. Kara got annoyed, or even angry.
I eventually learned a way to get Kara to agree with me, with a very high rate of success. I’ll tell you this method now, but be aware: it is a difficult method and you may not like it.
Step One: Stop
Step one to getting Kara to agree with you: Stop trying to convince Kara. Sincerely thank Kara for sharing their thoughts and expertise. Turn around and march back to your own desk. Sit down and forget about the icon. This concludes step one of convincing Kara to abandon the icon.
In a creative setting, you simply cannot by words alone expect to convince a person to do something they don’t want to do. The more you push, the harder they’ll push back. When you do so, you create resentment. Your words will backfire. It’s better to back off and take another route.
The primary rule of communicating with others in a creative setting is: Do not argue. Arguing is almost always counter-productive. If you find yourself in an argument, you’ve already lost it. Your collaborators will lose respect for you. You won’t convince them.
If you are a strong-willed person and know you’ll have trouble backing off, consider this: What’s the cost to the team if the icon is implemented and then reverted? If the answer is relatively small, then is it really worth fighting over?
Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos describes this situation as a “two-way door”. You can walk through it both ways. If the cost of reversing the decision and walking back through the door is relatively low, then why should you and your coworker even talk about it? If it turns out to be wrong, removing the icon is easy. It’s better to make a decision and move forward than to spend more time talking than it would take to implement a solution.
Suppose you have a short, polite, and respectful conversation with Kara about the icon. Let’s examine the possible outcomes.
- If the icon is implemented and it turns out to be the right idea, then great! Kara wins, the customer wins, and if you had a productive and respectful conversation with Kara then you win because you learned something.
- If the icon is implemented and then Kara realizes their mistake and reverts it, then Kara has learned a valuable lesson that they couldn’t have learned otherwise. Plus, they will remember that you were right about this issue when you spoke about it, and that you were respectful about presenting your concerns.
Either way, everybody wins and there are a few downsides. Now let’s examine the outcomes if you push the issue too hard.
In this case, Kara is likely to resent you whether or not the icon works out. Their resentment may even cause them to push for keeping the icon after it has proven not to be the right thing for your product.
The important thing here isn’t the icon, it’s your relationship with Kara. It’s better to preserve a good relationship with Kara than it is to prove yourself right about any particular issue. By fostering a strong relationship you grow your opportunity to influence Kara in the future.
Step Two: Check Yourself
The next and most important step to getting Kara to agree with you is: Check Yourself.
The only person you’re responsible for is you. Kara may or may not be making a mistake with the icon, but you’re not responsible for it. Before you can help Kara, first consider whether your own responsibilities are being met. People defer to the judgment of another only when they view that person as currently being successful. Past successes don’t factor in. Trying to convince Kara won’t work if Kara doesn’t see you as a person worth emulating.
When I say that you’re not responsible for Kara or their icon, I don’t mean to imply that you shouldn’t express your concerns. You should of course do so for all features that concern you. But if you carry into the conversation hopes or expectations about its result, then you disrespect your coworker.
When I pushed the issue so hard that Kara became defensive, I wasn’t respecting the boundaries of Kara’s responsibilities, even though I thought highly of Kara as a designer.
If you think when raising concerns about something with a coworker you are likely to get into an argument, it may be better not to raise the issue at all. If you or the other person are especially prone to argumentation or defensiveness, it’s best to avoid the subject entirely.
Before, I promised to teach you a way of getting Kara to agree with you, with a very high rate of success. It’s high because usually, one of two things happen. Either:
- Your patience pays off and Kara eventually sees your point of view. Or,
- Kara changes your mind. In this case, the two of you still agree.
Learning To Let Go
Let’s put aside Kara for a moment and talk about me. In my story, I went to someone else’s desk and told them how to do their job. That’s the definition of arrogance. I wasn’t just disrespectful, I was arrogant.
It doesn’t matter how much experience I had with this particular kind of icon. I was an arrogant person when I did this to Kara. I forgot to check myself. I can’t possibly convince someone who sees me as arrogant. The most important step is to realize my own arrogance and put a stop to it.
Have you been arrogant in this way? It’s OK. You’re well-intentioned. I’ve been there. You’re not an arrogant person. You’re a humble person who forgot and sometimes displays arrogance. You can improve by dropping the sometimes-arrogance. How do you do that?
It’s an ancient proverb that “one must empty their cup before another can fill it.” No matter how much expertise you have on a topic, if you approach it assuming you know nothing, then someone like Kara can fill your cup with their wisdom. But if you go to Kara with only the intent to teach, you’ll never learn anything. The wisest people are the ones who always empty their cups.
Socrates knew that he knew nothing. If you, too, adopt the attitude of knowing nothing, then you’ll earn Kara’s respect for your humility and their friendship for being a kind, teachable person. (Socrates was also so annoying that they put him to death, so maybe don’t emulate him too much.)
One day, Kara may see your humility, knowledge, and success, and will admire it. They may ask you for your guidance on icons. At that time you can, with respect for the boundaries of their responsibilities, share with them what you know about icons. Then your goal of convincing Kara will have been accomplished.
To change someone else, you first have to change yourself.