There's wisdom in children’s books.
When Winnie the Pooh uttered “I am a bear of very little brain, and long words bother me.” he launched an armada of self-help ships. Legions of blogs and books celebrate Winnie’s wisdom courtesy of A.A. Milne. To me that boils down to being understood, being persuasive, and being expansive.
Let’s dig into being expansive.
To say, “I am a bear of very little brain...” expresses wonderful humility. It also shows — like all individuals who exhibit intellectual humility — that Winnie the Pooh is an expansive thinker. A leader.
Leaders who exhibit expansive thinking are open, curious, and experimental, like Winnie. This isn’t just how they think, but also how they encourage others to think.
Researchers Ian Church and Peter Samuelson investigate intellectual humility and expansive thinking as leadership traits. They confirm that those who exhibit humility in their approach are not only consistently high performers, but they inspire that performance in others.
When Pooh describes himself as ‘a bear of very little brain’, he’s creating a level playing field where those around him can share insights freely. In modern research parlance, the phrase that’s thrown around is psychological safety. For us laymen, psychological safety is a judgment-free zone. It allows us, and Pooh, and all his friends in the Hundred Acre Wood to bring their fullest selves to the party.¹
Pooh isn’t the first great thinker to do this. Intellectual humility, deliberately expressed as spoken form, has been around since the ancient Greeks and Romans. The godfathers of rhetoric recommended intellectual humility for anyone who wants to lead or persuade.
So, with absolute humility, may I humbly suggest a modest selection of rhetorical techniques that help speakers hurdle hubris.
Many a speaker has started a presentation by saying, “Gosh — I don’t do this very often…” Yes — it sets a low bar, but it also frames the speaker as a plucky underdog (and audiences love a plucky underdog).
Pooh’s statement “I am a bear of very little brain…” is disarming modesty. In fact, Pooh is known for wise reflection and that immortal phrase ‘pondering’.
When we’re in meetings or conversations, especially with folks fond of long words or complex questions, Modesty is our best defense. Rather than disagree or retreat, modestly asking for further explanation creates a neat reversal. Often, it’s then the other party that finds themselves wrong-footed and retreating. There is defense in humility.²
We all have a burden of care to make sure we don’t innocently use those same long words against others. It’s surprisingly easy to do. Others are at neither their best nor most open when someone else makes has just made them feel stupid.
I had flu last week. It was dreadful.
Oh alright — I had a cold… definitely sniffly.
OK - OK!!!! — It was just a sniffle. Happy now?
The words we chose to describe things matter. They bring scale.
We all perceive the world through frames. These frames of perception dictate how we interpret the goal accomplished, or the challenge ahead. Those frames are built of adjectives.
Adjectives need careful choosing. Once something or someone is in a frame, it’s hard to move them out of it. We’re also likely to put ourselves into a frame. For example — that meeting in your schedule — the one you’re not looking forward to next week — how are you mentally referring to it? If you’re using adjectives dark with doom then you’re increasing your stress and decreasing the expansiveness of your thinking.
As humans we have acute radar for detecting threats — real or perceived. We then blow-up those threats beyond their true proportions. Threat flips our thinking from open and expansive to fixed and rigid.
When choosing words to support expansive thinking, keep them humble. Keep them small. Before reaching for that dramatic adjective, ask yourself if a more toned-down phrase might prove better.
Great big claims make audiences smell a rat.³ Appearing to boast is the opposite of humility. However, this does become a problem if those great big claims are actually true, and central to your case.
Even supported by evidence, powerful claims come off as self-aggrandizing. In a past life I was a Brand Manager. I had the luck to manage a brand that every year, would win the big prize at the annual industry awards ceremony. Naturally, this was something I wanted shouted from rooftops by the sales team. The problem however was how to do it. The regularity with which we won the trophy was starting to make prize less shiny and claim more showy. The answer, was to understate the achievement.
“... when it comes to product reliability, we’re not unknown for winning awards in that area.”
The line could be delivered a little coyly, almost as if embarrassed at the claim. A nice warm moment that subtly dropped a powerful sales message.
The secret to understatement is to use a “not, un…” combination. A fabulous restaurant for example, might tell you its ‘not unusual for diners to fall in love with our food’. A great achievement might be phrased as “...our results have not gone unnoticed.” When translated, these examples come out as “Customers RAVE about our food.” and “The press are going CRAZY about the share price!”
Conceding a point never feels easy. It can however, turn the battle.
We like to win. We don’t like it when our viewpoints are challenged. Being strategically ready to concede to your opponent’s point though can be disarming. It also triggers the human instinct of reciprocity.
Reciprocity can be short-handed as “one good deed deserves another”. When we concede we make a positive gesture. That gesture generates a responding gesture from the other person. Agreeing with one of their points, increases the likelihood they will in turn agree with one of yours. And if, despite attempting reciprocity, you still find yourself brow-beaten, then you’re winning insight about if this individual is worth continuing to engage with. Or not.
Using this strategy requires you to be open, curious, and a great listener. Many a conversation is lost because we react to the 10% of the sentence we don’t agree with, at the expense of the 90% of the sentence that we actually do!
The line “a bear of very little brain” is about thinking, and thinking is central to everything we do. The more we’re aware of our thinking, the more conscious and expansive we become. Pooh doesn’t rush through life on autopilot. Pooh pauses. Pooh ponders. In doing so, Pooh is truly aware.
We can learn a lot from Pooh.
¹ With the possible exception of Owl, who represents the exact opposite of intellectual humility and expansive thinking.
² Just ask any good attorney.
³ We have this on the authority of the great Roman orator Quintilian, who 2000 years ago left the advice “Beware grand claims — they make the judge suspicious.”