One of my favorite graduate school professors at Columbia University taught me a lesson I carry with me to this day -- in fact, I used it today.
The professor taught a group discussion class on business ethics. To keep a debate raging, he would constantly throw out controversial topics and, when any one of us would make an impassioned point, he would often reply the same way: “Now argue the other side.”
No matter how convinced we were that we were absolutely correct, he would make us stand up in front of the class, turn the argument on its head and make a plea for the opposite point-of-view.
He didn’t do it all the time, mostly because I think he wanted to catch us off guard and see if we could think on our feet. Even so, we eventually got quite good at the game.
I think that was his point.
His rationale? He firmly believed that in life and in business we will be often asked to defend or support something we don’t really agree with. So, he was convinced we all must learn to argue for the opposite opinion . . . partly in a way to understand the debate in the first place.
And he was so right. So right.
In this political climate, it might be harder than ever to argue the other side, no matter which side we start on. But, it’s still a good exercise in understanding where the other party is coming from.
In business, we don’t really get the chance to just say we disagree and end a conversation -- we typically must come to some sort of compromise and consensus, which often means agreeing to something you initially resisted.
I find myself in this situation all the time. As a leader who seeks to unite people to do great work, my role is as much about building consensus as anything else. I have to understand both sides of any equation. I need to understand where everyone is coming from, not just those with whom I initially agree. I should be able to flip on a dime if new information comes in or if a client gives us contrary direction.
I should be able to argue the other side, on a moment’s notice, right in front of the class.
So, in a world where opinions count and taking a stand is respected, how do you possibly argue the other side?
Learn to listen
Half the time, we don’t even know the other side -- we might have a general idea, but can't pin down specifics -- before we decide we disagree with it. Listening and acknowledging others' viewpoints are the first steps toward creating agreement.
Do your homework
No one is an expert on everything . . . but sometimes we sure act like we are. Before forming a solid opinion, do a little digging on the issues and find out the facts. Being informed will help you form a better opinion at the outset and help you convince others as well.
Keep an open mind
Creating a sense of teamwork requires a whole lot of skills, but maybe the most important one is an authentic ability to include diverse backgrounds, opinions, and approaches in your thinking. If you keep an open mind and consider every angle, you’re much more likely to come up with a better team solution. If you do this perfectly, there won't even be a reason to argue the other side because you’ll have already incorporated it into your plans.
Getting to that point, though, takes a lot of practice. So, start using this mindset in your daily planning now -- that way, you'll be exposed to different scenarios and improve the sense of community within your business.
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This article originally appeared on Entrepreneur.com. Minor edits have been done by the Entrepreneur.com.ph editors.