I picked up a copy of Pagan Kennedy’s book Inventology from the “staff recommendations” shelf of the library a few weeks ago. Several chapters into the book, these sentences jumped out at me:
“Inventors must be able to do more than just collect feedback; they also have to be able to listen to criticism and change course when they discover that they’re solving the wrong problem. It takes enormous self-control to do that. Rather than falling in love with your ideas, you must seek out criticism and cultivate people who will squash your enthusiasm. When someone tells you “I don’t need your idea,” you must not fling your drink in his or her face; instead, you must ask “Why?” It’s the most difficult – and ego-bruising – part of the creative process.”
Weaving the Narrative
Substitute the word “lawyer” or “mediator” for “inventor”, and this quote could apply equally well to dispute resolution professionals and to advocates representing clients in legal matters.
At the core of our work is listening to someone else’s story. As lawyers, we then construct a narrative that weaves facts and law into a solution that we can present to a judge or jury. As mediators, we try to guide our clients to a resolution that takes two or more often opposing narratives into account in order to help our clients craft a solution that addresses everyone’s problems.
Often, we discover a critical piece of information after the narrative has already taken shape. We may find ourselves realizing that the problem we are trying to solve is different than the one our clients need us to address. To serve our clients well, we must be flexible and willing to change course. We must ask open-ended questions and more fully develop our understanding of the problems we are asked to address.
We Have the Advantage!
After all, we have an advantage over inventors: The ideas, problems, and solutions belong not to us, but to our clients. As long as we remember to define success as that which best serves our clients (rather than our own egos), we can retain the flexibility to genuinely ask "why?", instead of simply defending our narrative in the face of criticism.