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The Most Important Skill You Have But Ignore

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If my writing has been a bit sparse lately, it's because I've just completed an interstate move. Predictably, a bit of chaos ensued as I transitioned office, home and family from Albuquerque, N.M. to Austin, Texas. My active client roster at the office and our infant at home -- sources of joy and gratitude in my life, to be sure -- did nothing to simplify the process.

But we survived, as most all movers do. And as things settle down and I grow tired of unpacking, I find myself with a little more energy to reflect upon the current events most prominent in the media. As I do, I find myself more certain than ever of our need for complex thinking and problem solving. We're not going to solve the problems that plague us in society and business until we incorporate sufficient complexity into our solutions.

Here's a mini-experiment to illustrate my point: For part one, choose a recent problem or scandal that's received sufficient media coverage to be commonly recognized. It can be gravely serious, like the Sandy Hook Elementary tragedy,* or more absurd, like Manti Te'o and his fictitious girlfriend. Now, choose 10 acquaintances, ask them what they think, and notice their answers. Try not to share your thoughts, just listen for theirs.

I suspect the majority of responses you'll get will be in the form of definitive statements. Conversations about Sandy Hook will likely lead to strong opinions (for and against) gun control, mental health programs, and individual responsibility. Talking about Manti Te'o will lead to one-sided statements about how Mr. Te'o should be punished, or how he should be absolved. No matter the topic, if you question the person's response or offer a contrary opinion, you'll most likely get stronger and stronger statements of the same position. It would be pretty easy to get into an argument here.

Don't fall for it. Instead, move on to part two: Wait a few weeks, and then approach the same individuals again. This time, tell them that you have a friend who needs to move across the country and is weighing the financial and logistical pros and cons of hiring professional movers versus renting a truck and doing it himself. Again, ask them what they think and notice their answers.

If your experience is like mine, you'll get very different types of answers this time around. Sure, your conversational partner's first answer will probably be his or her own preference. But a little questioning here is much less likely to lead to an argument. "You say you'd hire movers no matter what," you might ask, "but what if I told you the extra cost is enough to landscape the new house?" Or, "Sure, you and I might choose to rent a truck and do it ourselves, but my friend doesn't have a drivers' license." It's much more difficult to end up in an argument here; pretty quickly, you'll find your way into the exploration of pros and cons.

I did this mini-experiment entirely by accident over the last few months, but it taught me an important lesson: Exploring real solutions instead of entrenching ourselves in opinions and positions is not something we need to learn; it's something we need to do. The person who readily acknowledges in one conversation that every decision has tradeoffs, and then turns around 10 minutes later and declares that the answer to our economic problems is the obliteration of one of our political parties doesn't lack the skill of complex thinking and problem solving. He or she simply isn't using that skill.

I could ask why. I could do some research and come back with the causes and corrections for this phenomenon. But, since I have so much unpacking to do, I hope you'll allow me to take a shortcut. We don't really need a "why" -- all we need is a solution. And we know from experiential learning that the key to positively influencing adult behavior lies in getting individuals to practice existing skills in novel contexts. Our solution, therefore, is simple: We must take our existing complex thinking and problem-solving skills and use them more often.

The next time you're making small talk about current events and you find yourself ready to argue for an oversimplified, blanket solution to a complex problem, pause for a moment. Fully engage your cognitive powers and think through the myriad considerations involved in a simple decision like "rental truck vs. professional movers." Then, appreciate how the issue you're discussing has many more interdependencies, considerations, and unknowns than the simple dilemma. When you find yourself reflecting more than speaking, asking more than telling, and working harder at understanding the situation than you are at defending your position, you'll know you're headed in the right direction.

I'd very much like to join you in one of those conversations. In fact, they're the only kind of conversations I really want to have anymore. Unfortunately, I'll be too busy unpacking.

*Author's note: I struggled heavily with whether to bring up Sandy Hook in this article, especially side-by-side with such a relatively inane "current event." The truth is that I still find it quite difficult to talk about and even think about Sandy Hook, and my heart goes out to each of the victims and their families. It was very tempting here to name a few less traumatic events and leave it at that. But I believe that if we as a society are to learn from our catastrophes and prevent them recurring, the topic of this article -- leveraging our complex thinking and problem solving skills to find real solutions -- is absolutely essential.

For more by Edward Muzio, click here.

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