Creative, out-of-the-box thinking is an important skill for persuasion, consensus building, and negotiation. Fortunately, we can use this skill in many other contexts. Even more fortunately, the more we practice thinking out of the box in everyday situations, the more natural such thinking becomes, and therefore, the more easily we can call it up in important consensus seeking conversations.
People naturally associate out-of-the-box thinking with new developments. In my book Bridges to Consensus I recommend asking a fanciful question about the problem you are working on, a questions such as, “What would Spiderman do?” to inspire creative thinking. Spiderman is a fictional character with special high-tech powers.
However, as Bridges also points out, a similar question about a person or character from the past can be equally inspirational. For example, you might ask, “What would Grandma do?” Sometimes we get out of the box by going forward, and at other times, we get out of the box by going backward in time.
More specifically, the fact that a problem can be approached using modern electronic technology does not mean it has to, or even should, be approached in that manner. One of my Rice students complained about how long it took her to print a very large number of copies of a document, and her printer was tied up all the while. I asked her, “Why not print one copy then make photocopies of that?” Her reaction, “Gosh, I never even thought about that.”
Here’s another example from my own personal experience. Recently, I was looking for a simple health insurance policy to tide me over for just a few months until I go on Medicare. I decided to see what I could find through the new Obamacare Marketplace.
Being the sort of person who plans ahead, I began my efforts as soon as the new Marketplace website went up, while they were still getting the bugs out of it. I had trouble setting up an account online. However, whenever I got an error message, that message gave me a phone number I could call.
Like most modern people, I had a knee-jerk reaction; if something high-tech like a website is taking a long time, getting through by phone must take even longer. But I decided to try the phone number anyway.
I waited no more than about five minutes before a knowledgeable woman answered my call. She took my application over the phone, and even better, was able to answer, on the spot, some questions I had about completing the application—no inefficient back and forth on the Internet or guessing at the right way to answer the questions. Completing the application the old-fashioned way, over the phone, was not only faster, but also more accurate.
A few weeks later, I received a phone message stating that my application had been processed, and giving me a number to call to choose a policy. At this point, I probably could have gone online and chosen a policy. However, I decided to try the telephone route instead.
In this case, I did have a long wait, but I simply put my phone on speaker while I was on hold and continued working at my computer until a representative came on the line.
Again, I was very glad I had opted for the telephone route. After listening to my specific needs and wishes (interests), the representative explained to me why it would make sense for me to choose a much less expensive policy than the one I was considering for the few months I needed it. If I had chosen a policy through the website, without her advice, I would have paid several hundred dollars more than necessary for the stopgap insurance.
So the next time you find yourself a little stumped, try asking yourself how your mother or grandfather might have approached the matter. If you find that you’re able to “back out of the box,” I would love to hear your story.
Remember, too, that children and younger adults may not know how people did things before the computer age. Those of us who do remember can help equip them with the ability to back out of the box by telling them our stories, and our ancestors’ stories.
Not only will you and your kids find inspiration for better and more efficient solutions when you back out of the box, but you will build skill in this way of thinking. That skill, in turn, will come in handy when you seek to build consensus by addressing both another person’s interests and your own.