Something Bothering You? Don't Just Let It Go.
It’s Monday morning, and that unsettling conversation you had with your client last Friday still echoes in your mind. As you look at your calendar and start planning the week ahead, you can’t seem to let it go, nor can you put your finger on exactly what’s bugging you. The phone is ringing and emails need to be returned, so you move on to other things.
The contradiction was right there, alerting you to something that wasn’t quite right -- but you sped past it. It isn't until later that week when you get the crushing news that your client has decided to take their business to a competitor. If you had acted on Monday morning's intuitive hunch, could the business relationship have been saved?
A resounding echo, a recurring thought, or a gut feeling -- contradictions are literally the cracks in logic that allow us to both question our assumptions and see other possibilities. Contradictions are everywhere, and they can guide us through potentially troubled situations if we take the time to learn from them.
Unfortunately, when the demands you face outpace the resources you have available to address them, you end up negotiating with yourself about which fire of the day you will put out, while others are painfully neglected. The busier you get, the faster you move and the less you notice. The less you notice, the more you miss the subtle signs that can help you refocus on the right priorities and avoid potential mistakes.
A side-effect for entrepreneurs, leaders and busy managers who slip into this scattered place is that they become blind to these early warnings. Two harmful impacts occur when we fail to follow the contradiction. The first is the lost-opportunity cost of the missing insight that could have been revealed. It’s impossible to measure this, because it may have been nothing -- or it could have been a paradigm-shifting insight that changed everything.
The second and more palpable effect involves insidious forms of courteous compliance. This concept, coined by renowned psychologist David Kantor, feels exactly like it sounds: You recognize that something is slightly off -- a contradiction emerges -- but due to a variety of factors (complacency, fear of speaking up, etc.), you stay silent and go with the flow. In essence, it’s the subtle choice to be a bystander, not an active participant, and the moment of learning passes as the contradiction is forgotten.
Similarly, Robert Galford, Bob Frisch and Cary Greene described how self-defeating habits like these can actually escalate into forms of organizational interference that not only crush efficiency and undermine performance but also poison engagement. In their book, Simple Sabotage, they show how seemingly innocent practices (referring all matters to a committee where things bog down, bringing up irrelevant issues that side-track critical dialogue, etc.) breed frustration and resentment over time.
To avoid traps like these, you need to master the art of following the contradiction. To follow any contradiction, pause and reflect on what it is. Here are three strategies to guide that reflection:
1. Ask what and why.
Explore the “what and why” about things without judging or concluding too much about whether they are good or bad. The spark of curiosity by nature is non-judgmental. Following up with questions like “Why could it matter?” and “What effects does it produce?” is a healthy inquiry that reveals the contradiction.
2. Look for the underlying dynamic.
There is always more going on below the surface than we see. Focusing on the underlying root issues, values, meanings and interests can widen our perspectives. If we take the presenting circumstances for granted, we often “look at the wrong problem” and miss the contradiction that lies beneath it.
3. Expect to see the unexpected.
When we challenge ourselves to expect to see something new and different, we free our patterns of quick assumption making and put ourselves in a position to recognize and respond to what the contradiction presents. The danger of following assumptions, rather than contradictions, is that we can only see the same familiar picture.
Although contradictions can lead you to see uncomfortable things, once you learn how to notice them, they can reveal the missing insight that might just keep a relationship, deal or project on track.
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