Openness is projecting an interest in hearing and objectively considering what others have to say. In addition to being one of the key indicators we use to make decisions about who does and does not have executive presence, openness also plays a big role in sound executive decision-making. That’s because being open encourages information sharing. As more relevant information is shared among members of a group, the smarter the group becomes. The result is better informed and more thoughtfully made decisions.
Given the importance of being open, it is ironic that it is not in evidence more often – especially when you consider how easy it is to project. Here are some things to think about and do to ensure you’re projecting openness with others and getting the best of their thinking.
Prepare yourself to be open, which is a mental and emotional task. It means being ready to receive information that may be contrary to your point of view, and being willing to honestly evaluate it. This is usually, however, where openness starts to suffer, before information ever begins to flow. It happens because we give ourselves away through physical reactions that mirror an underlying negative bias to what is being said. If you want the benefit of others’ thinking, you can’t let this happen. Prepare yourself mentally and physically to be open before you begin to interact. Here’s how:
- Don’t attribute motive to the speaker. Focus on what the speaker is saying, not why you think the speaker is saying it. Many otherwise productive conversations derail because participants spend more time filtering what the speaker is saying than paying attention to what is being said. Although suspending judgment about a speaker’s motive isn’t easy to do, it is important that you discipline yourself to do it. Once you stop focusing on a speaker’s intent and start focusing on what he or she is saying, you will naturally become more open to the message.
- Stay with the facts. Remember that points of view are conclusions based on facts (or the lack of them). They are interpretations. Before reacting to a viewpoint, find out what basis the speaker has for drawing it. Whether or not you agree with what you find, this approach will give you a non-emotional platform for understanding the speaker’s point of view.
Actively show interest in what others are saying. Do this by making eye contact with them and by using affirmative gestures to show them you are following and understand their logic. Simple things, such as nodding your head, or raising your eyebrows slightly while slightly compressing your lips (slightly is the key here since emphatically doing it will convey disbelief), go a long way toward making the speaker feel he or she is being heard. Then, if there is a point or conclusion to pursue, ask questions about how the speaker developed this point of view. Remember, speakers read audiences just as audiences read speakers. It’s a two-way street. So try not to use negative gestures or gestures that could be interpreted in a negative way. If you doubt what someone is saying, pursue it with open dialog focused on understanding the facts and thoughts used to develop the viewpoint.
Maintain dialogue that encourages others to contribute. This requires choosing the right words and setting the right tone for conversations. It is the ability to keep conversations productive, even if there is emotionally charged disagreement. To do this, you must keep the conversation safe for the participants. They must believe you want their honest thinking. If your reactions contradict this, causing them to feel it is not safe to openly contribute, you’ll have almost no hope of getting the benefit of what they really think. Instead, you will get their agreement or their silence, neither of which will help you better understand the issues or make more informed choices. The opposite, in fact, is what usually happens.
Try out what I’m advocating here, and if you’re already doing it, redouble your efforts. You’ll be amazed with both the results and the effect it has on your executive presence.