On September 23, 1944, during a campaign stop, Franklin Roosevelt took great offense at criticisms made by his political opponents against his dog Fala. Here’s what he said:
“My opponents have not been content with attacks on me … they now include my little dog, Fala. Well, of course, I don’t resent attacks, and my family doesn’t resent attacks, but Fala does resent them! You know, Fala is Scotch, and being a Scottie, as soon as he learned that the Republican fiction writers in Congress had concocted a story that I’d left him behind on an Aleutian Island and had sent a destroyer back to find him—at a cost to the taxpayers of … twenty million dollars—his Scotch soul was furious! He has not been the same dog since. I am accustomed to hearing malicious falsehoods about myself … But I think I have a right to resent … libelous statements about my dog!”
The audience roared with laughter. His speech had been broadcast nationally on the radio. As you can imagine, his opponents decided to find other ways to attack the president.
(Hear FDR in his own words, it’s really powerful — scroll down toward the bottom)
Roosevelt had used a bit of “political jiu jitsu.” In jiu jitsu, you use your opponent’s movement against him. Here’s an example:
The all-white figure thrusts his right arm toward his opponent. His opponent diverts his arm, moving it in a circular motion around his own body, defeating the attack and putting the opponent in a weak position.
Jiu Jitsu is a wonderful example of an idea suggested by the eminent 20th century architect and innovator, Buckminster Fuller: “Don’t fight forces, use them.” He was talking about engineering, but I find it quite useful in other aspects of our lives. In my role as a management consultant, for instance, I sometimes encounter people who are quite cynical. Being a card-carrying optimist, this used to be a real downer for me. Then I discovered Fuller’s wise comment, and it totally changed my response. When working with a cynic now, I ask the person to take a look at a plan I’m putting together, and invite them to critique it for me. Since cynics love to be critics, they usually jump right in and note several possible weaknesses in the plan.
The result? The cynic’s involved in a helpful way. He might have improved the plan. And I’m feeling good. I’ve “used” the cynic’s “force” rather than fighting it, to my advantage.
Other examples of “using” forces rather than fighting them:
• Try “Let’s play this out.”
When a client or friend tells me about a change they’re eager to make and I have some doubts, rather than rain on their parade I sometimes say, “It sounds like you’re really excited about this. You may be right; I’m not sure I see it that way, so let’s play it out. What are some potential benefits and risks of doing this?” Then we explore it together.
• Dealing with the force of floodwaters
America’s rivers are flooding more than ever before, the result of climate change. In the twentieth century communities built levees – walls set back a bit from the river – to reduce flooding. In recent decades scientists have found that levees do more harm than good; they can actually increase the risk of major floods. Now they’re lowering the levees and creating floodplains, where the excess water spreads out and is temporarily stored, reducing flooding and erosion and improving wildlife habitat. Rather than fighting the force of rivers, these communities are allowing rivers to follow their natural paths.
• Say “Yes, and …”
In the world of improv comedy, the key rule is to take what your partner has just said and add to it: say “yes and …” As comedian Tina Fey writes, “The first rule of improvisation is agree … When you’re improvising, you’re required to agree with whatever your partner has created. The second rule of improv is to not only say yes, but ‘yes, and.’ You’re supposed to agree and then add something of your own.”
Saying “yes, and” in the workplace can be an effective way to encourage creativity. When someone responds to an idea by saying “yes, but …” they’ve just negated what the other person offered. For instance: you think an idea has merit, and you’re worried about the cost. Saying “yes, but it’ll cost too much” may end the discussion (and cancel a potentially good idea). Saying “yes, I think I get your idea. And I’d like to figure out how we can afford it” will lead to more discussion and possibly a usable answer.
What if you’re thinking, “Yes, but …” right now?
The “yes, and” approach can be challenging. It’s difficult to say “yes” when you’re thinking, “Hell no, that’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard!” Think of it this way: saying “yes, and” can be another way of indicating you understand the idea but want the person to reconsider it. Indeed, the Japanese word for “yes” – “hai” – often means, “I understand what you’re saying.”
Creativity expert Chic Thompson has a simple yet powerful way of responding to others’ ideas when your first reaction is negative. Chic calls it curiosity before criticism. Unless an idea is clearly out of the question, make your first reaction one of curiosity. “Interesting, how’d you come up with that?” Or “I never would have thought of that; what are some potential advantages in going that direction?” Once you’ve explored the idea, then it’s time for criticism (meaning, subject it to some standards): Is it feasible? Who might oppose it? Can we afford it? Like saying “yes, and,” Chic’s approach requires us to suspend judgment and give the idea a chance.
Some years ago, a Massachusetts congressman was being vilified for his position on a certain bill by a congressman from Wyoming. The member from Wyoming went at the other congressman for quite a while, his voice rising, his face getting red, even beating his desk for emphasis. When he finally paused to catch his breath, the Massachusetts congressman inquired: “Am I to understand that the gentleman from Wyoming is thinking of taking my wife and me off of his Christmas list?
There was a brief silence, and then members of both parties broke out in wild laughter. The congressman from Wyoming tried to continue his tirade but got confused, forgot the point he was making and soon sat down. Like FDR, the congressman from Massachusetts demonstrated that humor can be a savvy way to use other’s forces rather than fight them.
When can you use forces rather than fight them?
Adapted from Russ’ new book: Loss and Discovery: What the Torah Can Teach Us about Leading Change. [more info]