Not too long ago, a client said to me at the end of our meeting, “I don’t know if you know this, but I really look forward to these meetings.” It was, of course, a very nice thing to hear. In retrospect, however, I think of her comment as a gift I left unopened.
I got this metaphor of gifts from Roger Schwarz’s recent book Smart Leaders, Smarter Team, which I reviewed in last month’s article. Ever since I read it, the image has been percolating in my mind. In a discussion about how leaders can raise their level of curiosity, Schwarz talks about the idea of “opening your gifts.” Here’s what he says:
“Most of the time, you don’t have to look for things to be curious about; team members offer them up as conversational gifts…Unfortunately, it’s easy to miss such gifts, often because it’s scary to open them. But opening them can create better understanding, relationships, and results.”
I love this idea of being handed gifts all the time, whether I recognize them or not. They could come in the form of compliments, or criticism. If I think of them as gifts, it doesn’t really matter. Each of them offers an opportunity to learn, but that opportunity only comes with actually opening the gift you’ve been handed.
So, what does that mean to “open your gifts?” Schwarz suggests that opening gifts involves two things: first, you acknowledge the comment that someone has made to you, and then you ask to hear more. So to open the gift my client gave to me, I might have said, “I’m glad to hear that. Can you tell me what about our meetings you especially look forward to?” Then, in addition to just feeling good, I might have received valuable information about what specifically we were doing that was helpful to her. And then I would be in a much better position to keep doing those things, because I was clear about what they were. As Schwarz says, “the gift is not the compliment. The gift is the opportunity to learn more” about the other person’s experience.
Sometimes it’s easy to open gifts. They come beautifully wrapped and lovingly delivered. For instance, “You’ve been a really important mentor to me. Thank you.” Or, “I know it’s been a tough year, and I think you did a great job leading us through it.” In these cases, you might find it easy to acknowledge the words and ask for more information. “Thank you! What specifically do you think I’ve done well? I’d like to keep doing more of it.”
It’s not always easy, though, even when the gift comes wrapped as a compliment. I know many people who feel uncomfortable with praise, and when they receive it they respond either by minimizing their actions or deflecting the appreciation. Even though the wrapping is pretty, the gift remains unopened.
And as Schwarz makes clear, “some of the best gifts you’re given come horribly wrapped.” Perhaps they’re buried under a layer of anger or hurt, or maybe they’re delivered with a load of blame. When someone puts a gift like this in front of you, it feels bad. If you feel accused, or misunderstood, or afraid, it’s likely that your nervous system will kick into fight, flight, or freeze mode, and it can be very difficult to reach out, accept the gift, and begin to open it.
The antidote that Schwarz offers is curiosity. He suggests looking for “times when people say something that bothers you, confuses you, surprises you, or that you disagree with.” And then in those moments, to the best of your ability, choose curiosity. Ask genuine questions. Explore the meaning underneath the statement. Ask yourself, what don’t I understand here? Step into what you don’t know.
I think it goes without saying that opening your gifts – beautiful and ugly – is crucial to developing your skills as a leader. How do you get better at anything without specific feedback about what you’re doing well and what you’re doing not so well? There’s another reason, though, why accepting and opening your gifts is so important, and that has to do with developing a team culture that embraces learning. The more your team members see you learn as you receive and open your gifts, the more likely they’ll be to receive and open their own gifts. And it’s clear from research that when leaders model transparency and teams share information openly, results improve.
So, how can you practice opening your gifts? Here are some suggested action steps.
What about you? What are the best gifts you’ve received as a leader? How did they come wrapped? What helped you open them? I’d love to hear your comments!