I stumbled upon Ryan Holiday’s list of “33 Things I Stole from People Smarter Than Me.” Holiday is a bestselling author and undoubtedly a very smart person, so I was keen to see what made the cut for smarter than him. Turns out, there was some really sage advice.

I love #8 about leaning in when friends mess up.

#11, about the difference between writing and publishing, really spoke to me.

And #18, which urges us to seek the learning, not the earning, is also powerful.

Have a read of the list and see which of the gems resonate with you.

It’s #5 on the list where I want to dig in today.

Holiday doesn’t attribute the advice directly in the article, but a little digging got me to the original citation, which is Neil Gaiman. Here it is…

“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

Neil Gaiman

In the original quote, Gaiman is talking about writer’s craft and what to do with feedback on your manuscripts. Having written three books, I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment. Whether I liked it or not, when reviewers pointed out sticky spots (or boring spots, or confusing spots) in my work, they were pretty much always right. But when they went further, offering suggestions for how to fix them, those solutions seldom fit. They didn’t jive with the overall goal of the book, they weren’t true to my philosophy or my approach, they sounded like someone else’s voice. The diagnosis was spot on, the cure was bad medicine.

I want to talk about this idea here because it has much broader applicability than writing and editing. This idea is fundamental to having productive conflict. You add value by identifying problems, you often create resistance, defensiveness, and friction by recommending solutions. Why? Well, for the same reasons editors can’t rewrite an author’s manuscript: Because you probably aren’t sufficiently versed in the person’s goals, you don’t understand their approach, or you just aren’t saying it in their voice (i.e., in words that resonate for them).

Identifying the Problem

When a colleague shares a plan, you will recognize holes in their logic, spot issues that have yet to be addressed, and identify assumptions that might not hold water. That’s a wonderful thing. You have different experience and expertise, you might be perceiving the plan through the eyes of a different stakeholder, you have more emotional distance from the issue than the person who’s been neck deep in it. Your obligation is to listen for threats and to spot opportunities to strengthen the plan.

Just because it’s your obligation, doesn’t mean the person is going to relish your constructive input. It’s seldom easy or comfortable to hear what’s wrong with your plan. But when you deliver feedback about your concerns kindly, most people will be receptive and willing to work toward a better approach. (For an effective way of delivering feedback gently, check out last week’s post on the I Love/I Wish strategy.)

Overstepping by Solving

While highlighting issues is a good thing, unilaterally trying to solve them is not.

For one thing, you probably don’t have as much information or context as the person who came up with the idea in the first place, so your alternate plan might not be an improvement.

Second, jumping straight to a solution, without first getting aligned about the problem can trigger defensiveness. Your colleague might be thinking…

(Do me a favor and have the narrator in your head give this their best sarcastic, cheesed-off tone, would you?)

  • Oh suuuuuure, smarty-pants, you think you know better than me.
  • Why in the world would adding that make it better???
  • Right, I should have said that it “synergistically transforms the paradigm,” that would have made it so much more compelling. Gack!

Getting Aligned on the Problem

Do yourself (and everyone else) a favor and stick to identifying the problem. Try something like…

“I was with you until you got to the section on channel partners. Can we revisit that transition and see what might help the audience make the jump?”

“I’m thinking about our investors. I’m concerned they’re going to see this deal as a distraction. What might convince them that we’ve got the bandwidth to do this now?”

“What do you want the employees to feel after they read this? I’m not sure how I should feel. I think there’s an opportunity to get crisply focused on one message.”

Each of these questions gives the author of the plan the first opportunity to weigh in with solutions. If they answer you back with a question, knock yourself out. Solve away! But until then, stick to helping them identify the problems they need to solve, rather than overstepping with solutions that probably won’t fit the bill.

Thanks to Ryan Holiday for the amazing list. Let me know if there are any others on the list that you’d like me to write about.

Further Reading

Book Review: The Advice Trap (If you struggle to tame your advice monster, read Michael Bungay Stainer’s The Advice Trap)

Why you owe it to your teammates to disagree with them

Bad Advice: Why You Shouldn’t Come with a Solution 

Video: Why Having a Solution Isn’t Always the Best Solution