Picture this: a group of senior executives is standing around a room in pairs, dressed in their corporate best, exchanging imaginary gifts. "Oh cool," says one executive to another, after being handed a mimed, unnamed object. "An Elvis costume! I've always wanted one of these. Thank you!" Raucous laughter pours from the pair, tinged with a mild dose of awkwardness at the ridiculous game they're playing... and the revealing places they find their minds going.
Did you picture it? (And are you perhaps thinking this is your worst nightmare. Team building gone mad...?)
In fact, I reckon this cheeky little exercise - which comes from the world of improvisation - contains one of the most important lessons I know about engaging and influencing people. Which is this: carry the energy of giving and receiving gifts into every conversation. It's the ability to treat every exchange as an exchange of gifts. Whatever they hand you in the conversation, respond with the positive energy of someone who is grateful for their contribution.
If they express a concern or a reservation, you say, "Ah, great, such an important point..." Or perhaps, "Thanks for putting that on the table. I'd love to spend some time talking through it and see if we can address it. Thank you." Or something along those lines that you can say without sounding like a parrot.
I saw this done really well just recently. I was attending a client's all-team meeting, and one of the leadership team was presenting the company's 12 month strategy. Mid way through the presentation, one team member put up his hand and asked what I like to call a questment (ie. a statement thinly masquerading as a question): "I don't know about anyone else, but this plan is feeling dangerously like a rehash of the failed customer strategy we ran in 2012."
You could feel the icy draught of cynicism sweep through the room. But only for a beat or two. Because suddenly, the leader at the front of the room embraced the comment with open arms. "Paul, I reckon you've hit on something that we need to all be talking about. It's such a good point, because if we all feel that way we're doomed to failure before we've even begun. So how about I spend some time talking through the differences as I see them, and then Paul you can lead the way on making sure we've been distinct enough. Sound good?"
Suddenly, Paul had gone from grenade tosser to hero. The look on his face was something between "what the...?" and “let’s do it!"
I reckon this works on two levels. Beat by beat, you turn adversaries into allies - taking their resistance and turning it into a welcome contribution to the conversation. And, perhaps more importantly, you keep your own mindset in the collaboration frame. It’s a great way of managing your own response to whatever comes your way.
So, next time you're faced with resistance, objection or criticism, put a smile on your face, open your eyes wide, nod your head and answer like you've just been handed a gift.
And, if you need a little more help, just keep that annoying tune from the Lego Movie in your head: Everything is awesome!
As always I'd love to hear what you think of the ideas in this post. Please leave your comments below.