Hearing Bad Ideas

Ideas happen all the time. Statistically, we'll hear some bad ones. At least we think they're bad. How can we best hear and react to these bad ideas?

Ideas Have Value

First, a basic foundation for ideas: Ideas come from people's thoughts. People's ideas are the catalyst for innovation -- things to try, explore, and from which real progress can spring. Progress is important. People are even more important. There is value in each.

Hearing and Learning

Some ideas elicit a strong response from us. Let's talk about the negative type of response. Perhaps there's something in our background or perspective that may make us revile at just hearing certain ideas. If we revile, the conversation will be over. That one idea will die. That may be what we want in the end. But focusing on just the short term consequence of disposing of a bad idea may blind us to other side effects we may cause in immediately, strongly, or without tact opposing a bad idea.

Let's explore some alternatives: Listen. Just take it in. Keep your composure. Don't even hint at your dislike of this idea. Ask clarifying questions. Ask about how this person got this idea. Ask about how this idea and any implementations so far have helped them. Here we're trying to get basic understanding, background information, and gathering any evidence of good that might exist.

Ask about any pitfalls they've experienced. You don't have any specific lines of thinking at this point but are just inquiring generally. Now ask about pitfalls that you see. Don't state that these are fact. Just ask if the person thinks these one or two pitfalls might apply. Ask if there are any adjustments they'd make to the idea or implementation to account for these. Here we're trying to expose in a non-threatening way the real drawbacks that may exist in the idea.

Now if you're feeling composed and generous enough, go a step further in your learning. Congratulate them on the good things happening to them relative to this idea. Then ask this person to describe how he thinks this idea might potentially be helpful to you. Is it a generally useful idea? Or in what contexts? You may be surprised with some thoughts this person shares with you that you have not yet thought of. You may be surprised at their generosity and desire to help you.

Graceful Disagreement

Even after hearing and learning, you may be unmoved in your opinion. Or maybe you want to give yourself time to consider what you've heard and learned. But in the end, you don't have to accept what you think is a bad idea. It's essential to realize that your hearing and learning do not imply your acceptance. You are not forced to agree. By listening you are not stating or even intimating that you agree.

You can give your own opinion or perspective on the idea. You should be honest to the opinion you hold in your expression. You also don't have to shove it in this person's face that you think the idea is terrible. You may not mean to make your disagreement personal. Do one better than that, and try not to let it be perceived as personal.

Remember that what you share as a counter-idea or fresh alternative is another idea in itself. If you're down-voting an idea, it's good to have an alternative anyway. You can state plainly that you'd rather not use this idea for you, your context, or your team. State the specific pitfalls that you don't want to happen to you. Remember that your relationship with people is more important than a problem to be solved or a task to be finished. Keep the channels of collaboration and communication open.

The next time you hear an idea you think is bad: hear, learn, be graceful, be honest.

Is this hard for you sometimes? What helps you avoid the initial bad reaction and inquire more honestly about what you're hearing?