This blog post provides a holiday double-issue. It’s a Christmas gift to my readers and a suggestion for a New Year’s resolution wrapped into one.
Having trouble thinking of the perfect gift for your loved ones and your co-workers? How about a gift that won’t cost you a cent but will be priceless to those who receive it?
I’m talking about the gift of outside-in thinking.
Outside-in thinking is an attitude, an approach and a skill. It’s an attitude of taking responsibility for the other person’s outcomes, for improving their situation in some way. It’s an approach that reverses the normal thinking patterns we use when we try to sell our ideas, and it’s a skill which you can resolve to master and make a habit.
Outside-in thinking is about starting with why, by putting yourself in the other’s mind and seeing the situation from their perspective and understanding their needs and concerns. If you want to communicate effectively and improve outcomes, you need outside-in thinking because it’s not about you—it’s about your audience or your listener. You may have the idea and the impeccable logic to support it, but they have what you don’t: the power to understand, agree and act. Outside-in thinking will help you explain it in terms they can understand, give them reasons they can agree with, and move them to action.
Here’s a table that summarizes some of the major differences in attitude and behaviors between the two ways of thinking:
|Inside-out Thinking||Outside-in Thinking|
|Talking more||Listening more|
|Message is the same for everyone||Customized message|
|Try to sound smart||Make them feel smart|
|Natural and easy||A skill that requires work|
|Show how much you know||Give them what they need to know|
|Trying to be interesting||Be interested|
|Golden Rule||Platinum Rule|
|Objections are obstacles to getting outcomes you want||Objections are opportunities to improve outcomes|
Some of the differences in the table speak for themselves, and some may require a little elaboration:
Outside-in communicators know that the quality of the reception is more important than the elegance of the transmission, so they begin their communication process from the point of view of the other person first.
Inside-out communicators craft messages and create slide decks that are one-size-fits-all. The message and its expression are the same for everyone. Outside-in communicators customize their messages and approach to the preferences and needs of the audience.
Inside-out communicators strive for win for themselves, even if it means a loss for the other party. Outside-in communicators look for ways to craft win-win solutions that increase the total value for all concerned.
Inside-out communicators worry about sounding smart by making things complicated; outside-in thinkers work hard to simplify and explain to make others smarter.
Inside-out communicators view listeners’ objections as obstacles to be overcome in order to get the outcomes they want, and they prefer to avoid them. Outside-in communicators welcome objections, because they provide a window into the other person’s needs, and provide information that may be used to work together with the other person to devise even better outcomes.
Inside-out communicators spend more preparation time fiddling with their fonts and animations than they do thinking about what the audience wants to hear.
Above all, outside-in thinking is based on the Platinum Rule, which is doing unto others as they want to be done unto, not as we want to be done unto.
Is it better to give than to receive? I think that depends on the person and the gift that is being exchanged. But the best part is that you don’t have to answer the question, because outside-in thinking is like that big-screen TV you buy for the family: it’s as much a gift to yourself as it is to the receiver.
Resolve to build your outside-in thinking muscle
To give yourself and others the priceless gift of outside-in thinking, it’s not enough to decide to change your attitude and approach—you’re going to have to work at it. So, here comes the resolution: resolve to make outside-in thinking a regular habit, and start right now.
Fortunately, outside-in thinking is not so much a skill you need to learn from scratch, as one you already have that you need to be reminded to use. It’s like listening: we all have the ability to do it well—when we remember to do it and make the effort, kind of like having a useful feature on your smartphone that you forget to use.
The holiday season is a natural time to get into the outside-in thinking frame of mind because we’re surrounded by reminders to give, but it’s so easy to revert to our old ways if we’re not constantly on guard.
There are a couple of reasons we don’t automatically apply outside-in thinking. First, we’re all selfish and egotistical, which is just another way of saying we’re human, and naturally we tend to approach things from our own perspective. Our own perspective already exists in our minds; someone else’s perspective has to be actively brought out. It’s not our default mode. Second, it’s hard work to get out of our default mode because it requires what Daniel Kahneman calls System 2 thinking, and our brains resist making any more effort than necessary.
Fortunately, research has shown that simply reminding yourself to take the other person’s perspective will make you much better at it. Reminding yourself “activates” the script in your brain. For example, when people participate in a group task, and then are asked how important their own contribution was to the final result, they usually grossly overestimate their share. But, if the same people are asked to first consider what others contributed, and then asked the question, the estimates of their own contribution drop considerably.
You can prime outside-in thinking by using a brief checklist before every presentation, or even conversation or email. Ask yourself:
Print these questions and post them where you can see them. Ask—and try to answer—each of these questions the next seven times you have an important communication, and it will go a long way to turning it into a habit, and gift that will keep on giving for a long time to come.
So, to all my readers: Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, and best wishes for a prosperous and peaceful 2016! Thank you for allowing me to present the gift of outside-in thinking.
 Epley, N., & Caruso, E. M. (2008). Perspective taking: Misstepping into others’ shoes. In K. D. Markman, W. M. P. Klein, & J. A. Suhr (Eds.), The handbook of imagination and mental simulation (pp. 295-309). New York: Psychology Press.