1 Big Idea to Think About

  • There is a space between agreeing and disagreeing, and in that space lies our ability to understand each other.

1 Way You Can Apply This

  • Resist the urge to make your position known in every conversation.

1 Question to Ask

  • How often do I approach a conversation with the intent of agreeing or disagreeing?

Key Moments From the Show 

  • Symbolic power (6:35)
  • The influence of a graceful leader (8:30)
  • The power of understanding others (14:28)
  • The space between agreeing and disagreeing (19:43)

Links and Resources You’ll Love from the Episode

Greg McKeown:

Welcome. I’m your host, Greg McKeown. And I’m here with you on this journey to understand each other so that we can operate at our highest point of contribution. What can we learn from the world’s greatest public servant and, indeed, the world’s most experienced diplomat? Today, I will share an inspiring story, if there ever was one, some counterintuitive things I have learned from them, and some actionable advice for the rest of us. By the end of this episode, you will be able to create space, to understand others, and reap the reward of this rarest of abilities. Let’s begin.

If you want to learn faster, understand more deeply and increase your influence, teach the ideas in this episode to someone else within 24 to 48 hours. 

One of my young nephews was just asking me about why it’s a good thing to have a Monarch. He said, why is it good if you can’t get rid of them? If you can’t vote them out, how is this a good plan? And I didn’t get a chance to answer that question, but I want to do it now because I want to try and capture if I can, what Her Majesty The Queen has meant. We have seen the most extraordinary scenes over the last week, and I have felt, as people have the world over, the profound loss of a most extraordinary individual, and my nephew is not alone in not understanding the basis for the connection that so many people have felt. Especially if someone has been raised in the United States, there is a general interest, even fascination with the Royal family, but an almost mysterious connection to it. 

Many people have asked me what does the Queen really do? As if bemused a little by her role. They’re suggesting that if you don’t do things in a forceful way, you can’t have power. You can’t have influence when your federal government consists of three branches, executive, legislative, and judicial. It’s easy to imagine that those are all of the sources of power that exist in governance, but there is at least one more, the symbolic, and while it may be less understood, it does not make it less powerful. 

There is advantage to being able to vote somebody out when you no longer think their services are in the best service of a country. Democracy is one of the great inventions, one of the great boons of humanity. And if you can achieve a constitutional monarchy, which is what, of course, the system of government is in Great Britain, then you add another layer, a layer of stability that in all the comings and goings of democracy of all the ups and downs, there is a constant. And if that constant is somebody who happens to be full of a sense of duty, purpose gracefulness, then look what can happen. 

Think of the value of having somebody, a single state’s person, meet with your leader. Week after week after week, Her Majesty The Queen has met with a prime minister every week since Winston Churchill. That’s 15 prime ministers in a row. And listening to them talk about the role and relationship they had with her majesty is really worthy of note over the last week. 

So John Major put it this way. He said, “And on foreign affairs, she would always say if there was a difficulty with a foreign leader, well, I met him many years ago, or I knew his father. There was always a wise word to be had. And those meetings with the Queen were always the better part of a prime minister’s week.” 

She has visited more than a hundred countries. Think of that experience alone, the perspective that one would gain over 70 years of her reign. So Tony Blair, who served as her prime minister for 10 years, said that “she personified everything, which makes us proud to be British.” He added, “The Queen has been part of my life, all of my life, from the moment I waved my little flag. As I watched her as a child, be driven through the streets of Durham, to the honor of being her prime minister to my last meeting with her, and then lunching with her at Windsor Castle for the Castle Ceremony just a few months ago, she has been an enduring presence of strength and stability. At that lunch we sat next to each other, and she was in sparkling form as we talked – warm, gracious, humorous, and spirited. She was not only respected, but loved, respected because of the qualities of duty, decency, integrity, and fidelity, which she embodied and loved because of the love and affection she bestowed on us.” 

The next prime minister, Gordon Brown, and, by the way, there are six former living prime ministers who have been able to speak up at this moment. Gordon Brown said that “he admired her sense of public duty. She was conscientious. She was considerate. She was caring. She had a great sense of humor. She was endlessly patient, even when talking about the details of a boring budget, but most of all, what shone through was her complete and utter dedication to the country and the constitution. It’s the whole world that is in mourning because she was a compassionate, dedicated, wonderful public servant.

And nobody will ever forget the contribution she made. She was a peacemaker. She brought people together. She listened to people. She never told you what her view was on any partisan issue. She wanted people to come together.” 

That’s so interesting. Can you imagine? Jumping back now, Tony Blair said that when he was meeting with the Queen for ten years, so that’s 500 formal meetings, plus many, many informal ones, that he never got a sense of her partisan views. He does not know her views on political matters. Imagine that 500 visits. And somehow, she is both useful, valuable sounding board, encouraging and supportive, but he never understood or knew her political persuasions.

What are the advantages of a role like that, of a person like that, of a leader like that? David Cameron said of the Monarch, “As our longest-serving Monarch. Her remarkable reign has lasted for most people, our entire lives. We know nothing else. Throughout those seven decades, she has been a rock of strength for our nation and the Commonwealth. There can simply be no finer example of dignified public duty and unstinting service. And do we all owe our sincere gratitude for her continued devotion to living every day by the pledge she made on her 21st birthday.” 

The pledge, by the way, that she would serve for as long as she lived in serving the people of the Commonwealth. “Her dedication,” he continues, “to our country has been incomparable. And as such, she leaves an enduring legacy.“

“It was, each week, a privilege to have the most unique ability,” he said, “to sit down in private with Queen Elizabeth and to be able to call on her Sage advice and wise counsel. I was fortunate to have been able to call on the knowledge of the world’s greatest public servant and the world’s most experienced diploma.”

And there, we have a clue as to this other kind of power, this other kind of influence. Yes, it’s different than making laws or enforcing laws or adjudicating about those laws, but there is power in finding a space between all of that to be a diplomat, to understand, to let somebody else be understood. 

Theresa May, another former prime minister, said of her touchingly, of course, “We never say what took place and what was said in those audiences. But it was a conversation, a conversation with someone who was immensely knowledgeable and understanding of the issues. Many people don’t realize how much work the Queen put into her red boxes.” An actual physical red box of paperwork that is given to the leaders of the British government on a daily basis.

So coming back to Theresa May, “Most people don’t realize how much she put into understanding the issues of the day and what was going on in government and around the rest of the world. And quite simply, listening to this of all the leaders of all the heads of state I met, Queen Elizabeth II, was the most impressive.”

Now Boris Johnson, who was just relieved of his post as prime minister, said that “the Queen selflessly and calmly embodied the continuity and unity of our country. We think of her deep wisdom and historical understanding and her seemingly inexhaustible but understated sense of duty. Relentless, though, her diary must have felt. She never once let it show and to tens of thousands of events, great and small. She brought her smile and her warmth, and her gentle humor. And for an unrivaled 70 years, she spread that magic around her kingdom. This is our country’s saddest day because she had a unique and simple power to make us happy. That is why we loved her. That is why we grieve for Elizabeth The Great, the longest serving, and in many ways, the finest Monarch in our history.” 

When the current prime minister was just three days into her premiership when Queen Elizabeth II passed away, and so it fell to her to step out of Number 10 Downing Street and to make an official statement. “It was one of so many poignant moments over the last few days that she ascended to the throne just after the second world war. She championed the development of the Commonwealth from a small group of seven countries to a family of 56 nations spanning every continent of the world. We are now a modern, thriving, dynamic nation through thick and thin, Queen Elizabeth II provided us with the stability and strength that we needed.”

“She was the very spirit of Great Britain, and that spirit will endure. She has been our longest-ever reigning Monarch. It is an extraordinary achievement to have presided with such dignity and grace for 70 years.” 

Let me just say, as an aside, can you imagine doing anything for 70 years? Can you imagine leading a business for 70 years? Can you imagine the challenge of leading a scout group for 70 years? For being a leader in any role for 70 years is extraordinary. Never mind a role as enormous as this one and all of it in service. 

She concluded this way. She said, “As we mourn, we must come together as a people to support King Charles II, to help him bear the awesome responsibility that he now carries for us all. We offer him our loyalty and devotion just as his mother devoted so much to so many for so long.”

And here was the phrase that really took my breath away. “And with the passing of the second Elizabethan Age, we usher in a new era in the magnificent history of our great country. Exactly as Her Majesty would’ve wished by saying the words, God Save the King.” 

That combination that this is the passing of the second Elizabethan Age means something to us. 

Why is it a good thing that you can’t just get rid of somebody as you can in a normal democratic process? Why is it a good thing to combine stability with the changes of modern democracy? Because then you can create something that doesn’t last for just 200 years, but for a thousand. For a thousand years this process has gone on for various ages. And this one, a precious age for all of us who have lived under Queen Elizabeth’s reign. This is the end of that era, and with it, so many leadership lessons. 

And whether you’re the CEO or the CEO of your own life, here is one lesson that has really captured my attention as I have read and studied the statements from all of these prime ministers and in other interviews as well, trying to understand what that role has looked like behind closed doors. Nobody is allowed to speak of the details. In fact, nobody is there but the Monarch and their prime minister, and that, too, is key to the discovery of a most important principle. Add to this that over the last quarter of a century of observing interpersonal communication. My primary observation is that almost everyone, almost all of the time, listens with the intent to agree or disagree. People don’t even think of this as a posture. They aren’t aware that they’re making a communication choice. This appears to them to be what listening is, what conversation is. But when we listen with the intent only to agree or disagree, every conversation turns into a competition to be right. Everyone with a different view becomes an opponent. Conversations become lived at the surface because nobody’s psychologically safe enough to be able to discover and uncover what’s really going on under the surface in themselves or in other people. We distress the other side. Just think of the political polarization happening right before our eyes. There are few things as painful as not being understood. As Maya Angelou put it, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” 

So when people aren’t understood, they have a lot of pain that comes out in terms of strained relationships, lost productivity, and much worse. This comes at such a high cost because it keeps conversations at this trivial level. People don’t feel safe enough to reveal what they really mean. They don’t even have space to figure out what they really mean. And all of that grows into something like a wall between us, a walled-off communication norm. 

Now contrast that communication norm with the norm established in a constitutional monarchy under the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. There is a scene captured in the fictionalized show, The Crown, which puts into words, this distinct different norm.

This is between Queen Elizabeth and her mother. Queen Elizabeth says it doesn’t feel right as head of state to do nothing. 

And her mother says it is exactly right. 

Is it? But surely doing nothing is no job at all. 

But her mother says to do nothing is the hardest job of all. And it will take every ounce of energy that you have to be impartial is not natural. Not human people will always want you to smile or agree or frown. And the minute you do, you will have declared a position, a point of view. And that is the one thing, a sovereign, that you are not entitled to do. The less you do, the less you say, or agree or smile or think, or feel, or breathe or exist, the better. 

Now that’s just a fictionalized account, but there’s something powerful there, a discovery that there is a different kind of power. What I have learned about interpersonal communication is that there is a space between agreeing and disagreeing, and in that space lies our ability to understand each other. And in that understanding is where we can connect deeply and build relationships. We can solve problems and make progress. We can learn and grow when we forget that space, or if we don’t know it exists at all, as I think many people do not, then we become separated and divided by our differences. Differences are threats because it’s not the way we see it. And the only option is agreeing or disagreeing. When we remember that space, we can begin to expand it. Maybe a little at first. When we discover that we don’t have to disagree, we can just understand. Then we can expand that space. And in that space begin to do really great things together. 

By the time you are listening to this, the funeral of Elizabeth The Great will have taken place, and you and I will be living history because we’ll never see an event like it in our lifetimes. And by the time you’re listening to this, I will have flown to England. I will be at Cambridge University, and I will never have been prouder to be joining as I am Queen’s College.