About Conversation Kindling

The purpose of this blog is to share stories, metaphors, quotes, songs, humor, etc. in hopes they'll be used to spark authentic and rewarding conversations about working and living fruitfully. There are at least three things you can gain by getting involved in these conversations. First, you'll discover new and important things about yourself through the process of thinking out loud. Second, you'll deepen your relationships with others who participate by swapping thoughts, feelings, and stories with them. Finally, you'll learn that robust dialogue centered on stories and experiences is the best way to build new knowledge and generate innovative answers to the questions that both life and work ask.

I write another blog called My Spare Brain. This is where I am "storing" ideas for use in future books, articles, blog posts, speeches, and workshops. There is little rhyme or reason for what I post there. I do this to encourage visitors to come as treasure hunters looking for new ways of seeing and thinking vs. researchers looking for new or better answers to questions they already know how to ask.

30 August 2009

Cowell and Candor

American Idol judge Simon Cowell is thought to be mean-spirited for saying things like:
"You have just invented a new form of torture."

"Shave off your beard and wear a dress. You would make a great female impersonator."
Simon also gives plenty of pats on the back ...
"I don't say this lightly, what I'm about to say. That performance was on a par with Whitney Houston ... Celine Dion ... seriously."

"At five seasons, you are the best male vocalist we've ever had."
... but hardly anyone notices, or thinks of him as nice.

Why? His candor - especially when he is being brutally honest - is so out of step with the current conventions of social discourse that it stands out like a sore thumb. Simon understands this ...
"I think you have to judge everything based on your personal taste. And, if that means being critical, so be it. I hate political correctness. I absolutely loathe it."
... but there's a method to his madness:
"I haven't done anything particularly harsh. Harshness to me is giving somebody false hopes and not following through. That's harsh. Telling some guy or some girl who's got zero talent that he or she has zero talent actually is a kindness."
Maybe this is why he says:
"I am poor, misunderstood Simon. I'm really the nice one and no one gets it yet. But, they will."
Whether you agree or not, it's worth examining his premise more thoroughly.

There is a show in the U.K. similar to American Idol. It's called Britain's Got Talent. Simon is a judge there as well. Watch the following clip from the show. Here is what you'll see. A six year old girl steps onstage to perform. She is vying for a spot in the finals. She sings. The first two judges sing her praises. Simon is last to speak. Pay close attention to his words and - more importantly - how he frames them.

Here's Connie:

There are at least two things worth noting. The first is to recognize Simon's credibility as a judge. Little Connie, her parents, the audience and the other judges were all holding their breath as they waited for Simon's assessment. This is because they knew - based on his previous behavior - that he could be trusted to give her the rating he thought she had earned - nothing more and nothing less. And, they were afraid that he might not have liked her performance all that much.

The second is more subtle. When he said "Connie, I'm going to talk with you like an adult because I think it is important," he was deliberately making it clear he was going to hold her to the same standard as everyone else in the competition. If he hadn't framed it that way - and simply told her she was terrific - she might have thought he was just being nice to her because she was only six years old. As a matter of fact, odds are great that most of the feedback Connie had gotten up to that point in her life had been qualified as in "She's really good ... for someone who's only six." Instead, Simon gave her a true gift: feedback she could take to heart. It didn't matter that she was only six, she was good ... period.

But would he have been straight with her - or mean in the mind of most - had her performance been poor? In all likelihood, yes. It's also likely he would've taken her age into account and cushioned the blow as best he could. In other words, he would've tried to balance courage with consideration.

As a leader or manager or coach or mentor or teacher or spouse or parent or friend or neighbor or whatever, you should feel obligated to give the folks who wander in and around your life any feedback you think would - or even just might - be helpful to them. There are times, of course, when it is easier - and correct - to say nothing, or color the truth in some small way, to avoid hurting someone's feelings or getting into an argument. But, don't be too tempted to take the easy way out. Be like Simon. Care for people instead of taking care of them. There's a big difference.

Morris Schectman lays out the difference in his book Working Without a Net:
"Caretaking is when you bother me a little bit, and I do just enough. I feel better because I think I took care of you. That is not any good to you at all. You may be in fact an alcoholic and I just gave you the money to buy the bottle that kills you. But, I feel better and go home."
"Caring is actually stopping and dealing with the human being, trying to understand enough about them to genuinely make sure you improve their life, even if you have to start with a conversation like, 'If you will quit drinking, I will help you get a job.' This is a lot harder than saying, 'Here's a buck or 5 bucks. I hope it helps.'"
  • How do you tend to have either a caretaking nature or a caring nature?
  • Can you think of a situation(s) in which you were a caretaker? What did you do? What was the short-term result? Long-term? How was what you did either fair or unfair to the other person involved?
  • Can you think of a situation(s) in which you were caring? What did you do? What was the short-term result? Long-term? How was what you did either fair or unfair to the other person?
"He who praises everybody, praises nobody." - James Boswell
"Speech devoted to truth should be straightforward and plain." - Seneca
"The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names." - Confucius
"Beware how you take away hope from another human being." - Oliver Wendell Holmes

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