I’m a professional misfit. The media, at its best, is about independent critical thinking. Challenging stuff is the misfit’s role because it’s harder to be challenging when you feel you belong. I am proud to have contributed to that ideal of independent thinking to the best of my abilities while I was a journalist.
Recently, I realised that the skills of quality journalism – inquiry and communication – are the same as those needed by ‘effective followers’. What are effective followers? They are independent critical thinkers who actively express themselves, writes Robert Keeley in his 1988 article, In Praise of Followers, published by Harvard Business Review. Keeley says effective followers are just as important as effective leaders. I agree. And one of their most important traits is the ability to disagree agreeably. I’m not sure about that part.
Should misfits be agreeable?
I love the idea of disagreeing agreeably. But I’m not so sure it’s possible. If we think independently and critically and want to express these ideas, can we do so agreeably? And should we? After all, as a unionist of some 30 years, I’ve noticed that being agreeable in negotiations doesn’t get you far.
The first question is why be agreeable about disagreement?
Be agreeable to effect change
To be honest, it is something I have struggled with. I have relied on the energy of anger to propel me into challenging orthodoxy in the past. It’s scary to disagree, and one way for me to drive past the fear is to use it to propel me into loudly voicing my disagreement.
And journalists are not required to be agreeable. We have to be fair, but not agreeable. In fact, being disagreeable can win us more attention, even if it is not effective in changing people’s minds.
That’s where this issue lies, I believe. Learning to disagree agreeably is more likely to effect change. It also allows us more space to consider whether we are wrong and to back down if need be.
Disagreeing can be as much of an ego trip as leadership. For me, it can sometimes be the thrill of feeling superior. Not good. Not the person I want to be. Not the outcome I think matters. Not these days. Not with the problems we face in our world today. Complex problems.
The means and the end
More importantly, learning to disagree agreeably takes self-awareness and a higher consciousness. For example, it means having empathy for our leaders. It requires us digging deep into our reserves of courage to speak our minds without rancour. We deprive ourselves of the fuel of indignation. We make ourselves vulnerable.
These are the qualities that make for great leadership, too. And for creativity and happiness. That’s the why of disagreeing agreeably. It suits both the means and the end.
But what about how?
The sacred pause
I have learned the power of pausing before I speak. Meditation teacher and psychologist Tara Brach calls it the ‘sacred pause’, a beautiful way of capturing its value.
Pausing is hard to do. It requires a willingness to let go of my sense of being right, clever, and justified. Letting go of those feelings shifts the way I express myself. It’s easier to be reflective, to speak more personally, and from the heart.
Pick your battles
As every parent of teenagers knows, you can’t win ’em all. Disagreement can be addictive. The energy, the ego gratification, and the whiff of power and influence can be intoxicating. And rising above those addictions takes energy and commitment too.
While it’s good to consider contrarian ideas to every proposal, idea, and process, not all ideas are worth expressing or worth fighting for. I’d also counsel that you pick the battles that matter to you. It’s easy to get stirred up to take on other people’s causes. This is a downer, believe me (I’ve been there). Help others to be effective followers, but don’t do the work for them.
Be willing and open
Asking questions signals your openness to the possibility that, as astonishing as it might seem, you aren’t right. Asking questions actually makes me feel more open. Shouting ‘You’re wrong’ at someone doesn’t make me feel open. It usually doesn’t make them feel open either.
Asking questions signals your willingness and openness to respecting everyone’s views as you want yours to be respected. (Is that a commandment, or something? Sounds a little religious to me!)
Do you agree?
The ability to disagree – to think independently and critically – is valuable. It makes you an effective follower, which helps your leader become more effective. It’s a really cool thing.
The first step towards celebrating your life as a misfit is to realise how valuable you are, and then to commit to learning to do it agreeably. You are more likely to effect change, and to make the world a more conscious place in the process.