Giving Thanks in a Startup

Thanksgiving is upon us! For this week's blog, rather than talking about artificial intelligence or color theory in web design, we're giving you a blog that's a little more personal. This time of year calls us to turn inward, to consider what it is that we're grateful for, and then to spend our time communicating that gratitude to those who've contributed to our lives, or given us joy.

Of course, this is the fantasy of Thanksgiving. In reality, most of us wind up stressed from holiday travel, breaking our diets to avoid disappointing an aunt who baked ten pies for ten people, or seated at a table between arguing relatives with no tactful course of escape. Particularly this year, after a presidential election that divided many families, the Thanksgiving table is on a precarious cliff, teetering near the abyss of political debate.

All of this to say, what I'm most grateful for, after five months at a startup, is what I've learned about communication. 

We joke a lot about "Full House" moments at the office. So often, we check in with each other about potential miscommunications and end up hugging it out within ten minutes or so. We write each other notes, such as, "I'm sorry about my reaction to your idea earlier. I could tell you were disappointed and I just want to make sure you know I think it's great! My mind was just on getting coffee :see_no_evil:" 

Our whole team prioritizes communication, and it's made our workspace into a better environment, even over a relatively short timespan. So, on the eve of a holiday meant for communicating gratitude (but often used as a stage for all manner of debate), we thought we'd share our best tips for good communication that, we believe, really transcend the workplace.

1. Be transparent about your thoughts in the moment.

Nicole: With family, few arguments are what they first seem. An argument over who put the tomato soup in the pantry quickly turns to rehashing details from a wedding reception over thirty years ago. While I can't wipe the slate entirely clear with my family members, given the decades spent biting my tongue or resenting that time I ended up in trouble after an older cousin put a spider on me (which he continues to deny to this day,) I can certainly stop adding to the pile of repressed animosity. If you want to confront a well-intended but offensive comment or to express regret, do it quickly. No apology can come too soon; there's no need to wait until morning, or until 2030.

Brandon: In the same spirit, I think transparency in intent is also important. For example, don’t start with a discussion on the latest fall TV and then sneakily interject how the Hollywood gays plan to destroy the moral fiber of America. If you want to talk about moral fiber start there, not with Shonda Rhymes. In this, I defer to her own words: “I make stuff up for a living. It's not real, okay? Don't tweet me your craziness.”

2. If you've already made a decision, don't have a conversation about it.

Nicole: If you've already decided you're putting the turkey in the oven at noon, don't ask for others' input. Nine out of ten times, it leads to hurt feelings, ill-wishing, and I-told-you-so's. Instead, let the other person know you value their input by only requesting it if you're willing to take their counsel seriously and potentially change your plans.

Brandon: It’s alright to make decisions. That’s what makes the world go round! Just don’t turn a decision into an argument; that is a waste of everyone’s time. This goes from firing employees to making decision on a product in development, all the way to who is making the stuffing. 

3. Don't focus dialogue exclusively on your side of an issue.

Nicole: This is an easy trap to fall into. When you hear yourself repeating the same point twice, thrice, or more, it's not that the other person can't hear you—it's that you can't hear the other person. Spend your dialogue focusing on defining the space around your point of debate (e.g., what's at stake, what are consequences, what's the historical perspective, what does the data indicate) rather than iterations of "I'm right, I'm right, I'm right" if you want to open the possibility for a shared understanding of an issue, or a task at hand. 

Whether it's finalizing a color theme for your mobile app, deciding at what temperature to bake potatoes, or debating immigration reform in the U.S., "I know best" will only get you so far. (And, actually, that's not very far at all.)

Brandon: Trying to understand another person’s position on an issue will also get you much farther when it comes to being able to change their mind. It can be almost self-interested to focus on the other person because it gives you all the places you can challenge them later; that is, if they don’t change your mind first.

4. Always realize you can be wrong.

Nicole: At the office, we learn new things every day, and it's a point we really pride ourselves on as a team. If dozens of meetings with developers and investors hadn't taught us this lesson yet, nothing would: You can always be wrong. 

It's a logical truth, but admitting it is hard. Actively changing your mind is often served with a bit of humble pie, but there's a grace in humility. Take consolation in that modeling graceful humility for others, coworkers and younger cousins alike, is always a feat to pride oneself on, even if it feels inside like shredding every last ounce of pride you have left in the moment.

I'd be remiss to leave this point without a brief statement on feelings: fact is objective, but you can't deny someone his or her feelings or perspective. Arguing over whether a feeling is right or wrong, earned or indulgent, isn't constructive to any type of relationship, sister-to-sister or manager-to-managee.

5. End any argument with actionable next steps.

Nicole: At first read, you might wonder how this is applicable to familial ties. It's a best practice in the business world, but how would it apply to politics? to bickering over how to best dice a carrot?

Always ask, "What can each of us do as individuals?" And then name your next steps aloud. Otherwise, we're destined to have the same healthcare and human rights debate every single November from now until someone dies first. 

Brandon: :skeptical: But how would you define 'next steps' for someone who, for example, disagrees with LGBTQ rights?

Nicole: Here's my idea: Ask him or her to hold that belief, and while doing so, take on a challenge that's meant to change his or her mind. In case, perhaps read an autobiography written from the perspective of a gay man—all the while, holding on to those original beliefs. And then at the next holiday gathering, you can ask how that experience felt, if that person did feel challenged by anything they encountered, and how that text might have reshaped the issue for that person. Things are never quite as black-and-white as we'd like them, so while you can't expect to make a liberal convert out of your bleeding-heart conservative uncle, it's reasonable to endeavor in deepening the conversation over time.

6. And, when all else fails, just play some Adele. 

Brandon: There are some things you will never agree on, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a meal together. We all agree on the need for food, and Adele, so partake in that.

Happy Thanksgiving, readers! We're grateful for you.