Stand proud, speak out

A strong character and assertiveness are often praised as good character traits. But just as important is the ability to reflect on one’s arguments.

Everyone is familiar with the following situation: after an hour of meetings, all arguments have been heard and it’s time to reach a decision. But that’s when the delays begin: every attendee feels the need to repeat his or her arguments. The meetings drag on and on.

Why? One of the explanations is that most of us have been taught – in school, at university, during career planning workshops and internships – that we must present ourselves; that we must act assertively and try to distinguish ourselves from the pack. This is especially evident among the bourgeois elites. “You have to assert yourself,” daddy says to his daughter and encourages her to jump the queue at Whole Foods. She’ll feel the consequences of this kind of education for the rest of her life: she will drag out countless meetings by “asserting” her views and by repeating what others have already said. It gives her the feeling of having maximized her impact. But how can such a meeting yield tangible results?

In the field of start-up management, we usually distinguish between strong positions and weak positions. During discussions, the various participants clarify their respective arguments and intuitively rank their arguments according to their importance. The ranking can be determined by weighing different factors (for example, “how much do I understand about the discussion topic?”).

But the truth is that all participants also have their own interests: they want to garner support for their own arguments and their own vision. They want to ascend within the company hierarchy, or protect their privileged status, or increase their responsibilities. When a meeting drags on, the explanation for delays and indecisiveness can usually be found in the complex ecosystem of participants’ competing interests.

The only solution is to stick as closely as possible to factual arguments. If I am particularly passionate about a certain issue (i.e. I have a strong position on it), I can articulate my thoughts and draw on my expertise to show other attendees: “You’ll have to work hard to change my mind on this issue.”

“Strong position” and “weak position” aren’t exactly appealing terms. The ideas they convey can be expressed differently as well. When we debate internally at The European, we sometimes say: “I am not married to this idea” (if someone has a weak position), or “I am married to this idea” (if it’s a strong position). It’s obvious to everyone that these statements don’t constitute a commentary on family relations but describe the relationship between an idea and its advocate. They measure the degree of commitment of the speaker.

When all the oxygen is drained from the conference room, everyone knows that the discussion has run its course. It’s time to wrap up. You can use whatever euphemisms you prefer for “strong positions” and “weak positions,” but the ability to distinguish between different degrees of commitment is often what allows for a fact-driven discussion and for concrete results. And if all else fails, remove the chairs. When everyone has to stand, the propensity to compromise will suddenly increase considerably.

Newconomy is the new weekly column for the start-up industry. It focuses on the intersection of classical and new economies and of politics and entrepreneurialism. Newconomy is sponsored by Factory, the new start-up hub in Berlin.

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