Twenty years ago, when I was a squad leader at West Point’s summer basic training, a new cadet had a mental breakdown, lost control, and yelled at the training cadre that we were all a bunch of jerks (not his precise wording).

The Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) in charge of the training assembled a quick meeting of all cadet cadre members and asked a single question: “What do you think we should do about New Cadet Smith?

She listened as each trainer expressed his opinion. Eventually, a consensus emerged from the cadre that today’s outburst was just the latest in a series of incidents that suggested Smith was unlikely to succeed at West Point. Our recommendation was for the new cadet to pursue his education at another university.

“What if you’re wrong?” asked the LTC.

Her second question set off a lively debate. We went around the room again, and thirty minutes later, we had talked ourselves into a less extreme position. Since we couldn’t be certain that the new cadet would fail at West Point, we agreed that we should keep working with him.

“I support your position completely; thanks for thinking this through with me,” said the LTC. And with that, she adjourned the meeting.

Perhaps the four most powerful words in any language are what do you think? Studies consistently find that people are more open to alternative solutions when given an opportunity to have their say. But if we take their voice away, they’ll often push much harder for a single preferred solution.

Although it takes longer to let people have their say, smart communicators know that it’s usually time well spent.

For more pragmatic communication ideas, buy a copy of Stop Talking, Start Communicating. Autographed copies are available online at Brace Books.

Originally posted on

What Do You Think?

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