How Might That Be True?


"Curiosity is the lust of the mind." — Thomas Hobbes

It’s obvious in retrospect, but I found a distinction between low-friction communication and high-friction communication. 

By low-friction, I mean "person A" doesn’t have to work that hard for "person B" to get a point. 

It’s an unproductive energy drain. 

There’s a better way. 

It’s along the lines of Covey’s "seek first to understand, then to be understood."

Low Friction and High-Friction Communication Scenarios

I see a huge difference between low-friction and high-friction communication scenarios:

  • Low-friction scenarios.  I find low friction scenarios are often cases where "person B" starts with the mind-set "how might that be true" and they help "person A" tease out, or make their point.  The starting point is collaboration — two people working to understand the message.   This is an example of empathic listening … Person A talks until they *feel* heard.
  • High-friction scenarios. I find high-friction scenarios are often cases where *person B* starts with the mind-set "let me tell you how you’re wrong."   Person A never *feels* heard, there’s no rapport and the conversation instantly shifts to attacking and defending.

Ask Yourself, “How Might That Be True?”

It’s really easy among a bunch of engineers to rip ideas apart.  The trick I found is to first ask, "how might that be true?"  This gets over the potential hump that maybe while the delivery was off, there was merit in the message (or a concept needs help to be teased out) and it certainly builds more rapport than starting off as a devil’s advocate.

I’m certainly a fan of beating up and pressure testing ideas, but only after understanding what they actually are.  I also make sure that it’s about testing the idea, not attacking the person.

Benefits of a Curious Mindset

The key benefits include:

  • Avoid the black hat critic label.  More people will bring you their ideas.  If you are the naysayer or the idea slayer, you get tagged as the "black hat" critic.  I’ve found more cultures value smart optimism than black hat critics.  The reality is being a black hat critic is easy and it’s only one slice of the pie.  Smart optimism means you can see the full spectrum of the idea including the upsides, the downsides, the facts and figures, business feasibility, the emotional response … etc.
  • Rapport and trust.  When you have trust, the conversation is more objective and less an ego play.
  • Reduce conflict, improve collaboration.  You spend energy on thinking, not debating.  You waste less of your energy in debate and you spend more of it in critical thinking.

Key Tools for Testing Assumptions

Aside from simply asking yourself, "how might that be true?", there’s a few tools you can use for this:

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Photo by striatic


  1. “Reduce conflict, improve collaboration” – my favorite, no doubt.
    Being field consultant i leave and breathe conflict…worse as a consultant i must make others to buy in to my ideas…
    Collaboration is key. How do i improve it. BOOM! reducing any chance for a conflict.
    “How might that be true” works like a charm. I am with you 100%!

  2. “let me tell you how you’re wrong.” Hmmmn, so maybe I shouldn’t start every conversation with my hubby that way?


  3. I love the idea of “smart optimism.” The idea of blind optimism pisses me off. We can’t be happy about every idea, but we can encourage people to fine tune their idea or help them build upon an existing idea.

    A lot of people like the black hat role because it’s easy to poke holes in an idea. I’ve been this person. I’ve learned to say “yes, and…” an old acting concept that lets people build on ideas instead of tearing them down.

  4. High-friction scenarios (as you call them) are very educational for those people ready to raise awareness to a new level. If you encounter people who always attack you, then this can be viewed as an opportunity to learn to move beyond defensive reactions. You can actually evolve not to be bothered by such behaviour. The ego loves resentment of reality. This creates the negative energy that the ego consumes. To move to become a more conscious observer of conflict enables you to gain insight into reasons for it. The, you begin to dissolve the hold ego has over you. The experience of tension that prompted destructive reactions before loses meaning and not longer matters, so it dissolves off your conscious radar screen.

  5. Great information, it is all so true. I totally agree with you. My main thing on reduce conflict are always to be very clear on both side of the expectation. That really help a me a lot.
    Thanks for the great tips.
    Giovanna Garcia
    Imperfect Action is better than No Action

  6. This reminds me of the various motivations for dialog and argument. Some people argue to get at truth – that’s their motivation. Others argue to win – winning trumps truth. Think lawyer vs. Plato and i think you get the idea :).

  7. @ Alik

    When you have to sell ideas, collaboration is king. I’ve seen you shift to more rapport and it’s very effective.

    @ Jannie


    @ Karl

    I agree – blind optimism is silly when there’s so many thinking tools at our disposal.

    “yes, and …” is a great approach. It follows the golden rule of rapprt before influence.

    @ Liara

    Good point. It’s all about the part you control. If you’re the critic, you can learn to wear more hats. If you’re on the defending end, you can learn to move beyond defensive reactions.

    @ Giovanna

    Right on. The ability to see more than one side is a great skill. One of the things I had to learn early on at Microsoft was that I have to be open to being wrong. At the end of the day, it’s about building better ideas through critical thinking and teamwork.

  8. Point on the high friction issues.

    If someone is continually high friction, it takes much more energy to interact with them. This is one of the types of high friction (the critic) , but there are certainly others.

    I’ve often been on the side where I can see that I’m simplying out-distancing people with my ideas. This is not to saw that I’m smarter than they are, but just that I fail to put my ideas into a form that they can get. Using analogies, simple picture, hiding detail are all strategies for helping in that case. Too high friction and people give up. Soon you are the leader out in the middle of the field, sword held high, and you turn around and no one is following because you lost em. 🙂


  9. @ Liara
    Challenging people certainly can help dissolve ego issues. Agreed. I’ve done that in part through Debbie Ford’s Secret of the Shadow courses. But at the same time, I find that even when I get to the other side of that, it doesn’t always make interacting with them pleasant.

    for example – If people want to call me names, I really don’t react to very many, if any at all these day. But after at time, I still get tired of this depending on the amount of time I need to interact with them. My teenage step-daughter is an example here. We have a good relationship now and it took 5 years of me being consistent, but it was still tiring during the process. Not getting tied in egowise allowed me to instantly change and embrace her with open arms when she was ready, but the daily tension until that time required that I put up emotional boundaries to maintain my energy.

    Curious if you would say that it was still something I was holding on to ego wise. It’s relevant to this discussion in that I’m wondering if you believe that one can dissolve the unpleasantness completely such that being in “negative energy” does not affect you. And do you make a distinction between negative energy and challanging energy.


  10. @ Rob

    That’s a good way to put it and it’s a good test … how easily can others follow? The one-liner that I always remember is “don’t make me work to hard to get the point.” You’re right, pictures, metaphors, … etc. go a long way.

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