MCLEOD: Pursue your own goals but also listen to others

"At a certain point it gets to be about me, right?"

He was a seasoned professional who'd been in business for years, and when he asked me this question near the end of a leadership workshop I was giving, I knew he was struggling.

In his way of thinking, conversations and interactions were either about you or the other guy. He saw the benefits of asking the other person questions and learning about their goals to better frame up his own point. Yet as he succinctly pointed out, "You're there to get something done. At a certain point the meeting is eventually going to have to be about that."

This was a smart, well-intentioned, nice guy who was trying to do right by his company, his employees, his boss, his customers and also his family. However, like many of us, he believed that he had to choose between two agendas. It's either going to be about me, or it's going to be about you. We might go back and forth during the conversation, but at the end of the day, I need to accomplish something, and I'm going to make sure I get it done.

That's the quagmire.

We often think, in fact we're frequently told, that the most effective way to achieve our objectives is to single-mindedly focus on our goals. A goal orientation itself is not a bad thing. However, problems arise when we become so focused on our own goals that we don't leave space for anyone else's. We become so determined to get our way that we often alienate the very people we are trying to convince.

How many times have you seen someone so eager to prove his point that nobody else stands a chance? Sometimes even people who agree with them are turned off when it becomes obvious that all they care about is getting their way.

On the flip side, many of us have also experienced the frustration of being so accommodating to others that our own agenda is completely forgotten, which only breeds anger and resentment over time.

The belief that we have to choose between our agenda and the other guy's is a common problem. It's reinforced by our culture and by political parties that stress beating the opponent more than actually solving the problems. By an educational system that expects teachers to pour mountains of information into their students' heads without providing the time or space for the students to add their own thoughts. And by advertising campaigns that spin out sexy, 30-second pitches, encouraging us to buy something today before we have time to think about whether or not we really want or need it.

Is it any surprise that the well-intended businessman is wondering when it's going to be about him? Everywhere he turns he hears a one-way pitch from someone else.

The idea that we have to choose between our agenda and someone else's is reinforced at multiple levels, and it's also the default setting of our own minds.

But it doesn't have to be that way.

We can aggressively pursue our own goals and hold a space for others, at the same time. We can be great listeners and great talkers. And we can be both empathetic and commanding.

My research demonstrates that people who think beyond their own agenda actually have more success accomplishing their goals. That's because when you hold a space for others, they hold a space for you, and together you become smarter and more powerful than either of you would be alone.

Snellville resident Lisa Earle McLeod is a keynote speaker, consultant and a best-selling author.