Home » Business Tips » 7 Years Ago, Elon Musk Demonstrated the Perfect Way to Respond to Criticism. It’s a Lesson in Emotional Intelligence

7 Years Ago, Elon Musk Demonstrated the Perfect Way to Respond to Criticism. It’s a Lesson in Emotional Intelligence

We live in a world where differences in opinion, perspective, or approach spark conflict, not compromise. Where conviction is more important than exploration.

Instead of having what Stanford professor Paul Saffo calls “strong opinions, weakly held” — starting with a conclusion, then looking for information that could spark a new conclusion — most strong opinions also seem to be strongly held.

That’s especially true when you put your money, your career, and your livelihood where your opinions are. 

How do you respond when you’re in the hottest of seats — when everyone around you not only disagrees, but has a vested interest in disagreeing with your perspective or approach?

Here’s a great example from an unlikely (especially unlikely since I recently implied he’s a little too confident):

In 2014, Musk was interviewed onstage at the Oslo Oil and Gas Summit, an industry conference for — yep — leaders in oil and gas. Naturally the focus was on improving operations. Automation. Innovation. Boosting efficiencies and reducing waste.

In short, people far from primed to welcome a person actively seeking to make their industry obsolete.

“What kind of threat do you think you are to the oil and gas industry?”

Clearly a softball question, but also a tempting trap. Musk could whack it confidently, even boldly, by comparing oil and gas conglomerates to dinosaurs. The statistics are on his side. Even the most conservative forecasts and projections are on his side.

He could boldly go where entrepreneurs intent on disruption tend to go and describe how he, and Tesla, will change the world.

He pokes a little fun at himself.

“Well…” Musk says, looking up and smiling gently, “I don’t think we’re much of a threat.”

His answer is disarming. Currently, an electric car (and by extension, anything currently solar-powered) isn’t a threat. “Powered by renewable” makes up a tiny percentage of the market. Musk knows that. 

The audience knows that — and by conceding the point, Musk immediately scores points. He may be a dreamer, but clearly he’s also realistic. He recognizes the power (no pun intended) still held by the people in the room. He implicitly recognizes their importance.

Now, and for some years to come.

Not only is it the right response, it’s an emotionally intelligent response.

But since he also envisions a different future, he pauses and throws in a “yet” after saying, “I don’t think we’re much of a threat.” 

That little addition is perfect, because it sets the stage and foreshadows the rest of the conversation. 

He quickly finds common ground.

Musk quickly doubles down on things he and the audience can agree on. 

“The more obvious threat,” Musk says, “is that we’re going to run out of hydrocarbons to mine and burn.” 

“No time soon,” the interviewer interrupts, “judging by the comments we’ve had this morning.”

Instead of spouting his own supply/usage statistics, Musk takes a different approach. “It’s getting harder and harder to find hydrocarbons,” he says, “and it’s getting much more expensive to extract them.”

That’s true. Shoot, that’s why oil and gas executives have attended the conference in the first place: They’re seeking answers to those challenges.

Then he shifts the argument. “Really, we’re just arguing about the ‘when’ hydrocarbons run out or become prohibitively expensive,” he says. “Not ‘if.’ I don’t think there’s anyone here who would say it’s an ‘if,’ not a ‘when.'”

Musk knows the audience is smart. Yet he also understands they’re emotionally invested in the subject. So he doesn’t insult their intelligence. He doesn’t attack their profession. By saying ‘when,’ he accepts that their industry will be extremely important for years to come.

And by saying ‘when,’ he subtly invites them to be included in the solution.

That’s a win-win, because now it’s a different conversation, one that implies we (the people in the room) are all in it together.

He stays big picture.

The interviewer takes one more stab at winding Musk up. She compliments him. She calls him a “tech guy.” A physicist. An engineer.

“You don’t think human ingenuity,” she says, “and technology, and refulness, will mean that we will still have abundant fossil fuels available?”

Musk smiles. “There are time extensions on the game,” he says, “but the game is going to come to an end. That should be absolutely certain. Obviously.”

Obviously? When people disagree, “obviously” tends to immediately close an open mind. Musk just risked losing the audience — and with a tilt of his head and a “frankly” to indicate he may have chosen the wrong word, Musk shows he knows it.

“Look,” he says. “I don’t have any fundamental dislike of hydrocarbons. I simply look at the future and say, ‘What is the thing that will actually work?’ Using an non-renewable re obviously will not work. So we must find an alternative.”

Here, an “obviously” makes sense. No one can argue that a non-renewable re is smarter approach — to anything — than a renewable re.

Infinite always trumps finite.

Plus, Musk once again kept the focus on the issue, not on people. He didn’t say people who thought differently were stupid. He didn’t say people in the room needed to start looking for other jobs.

He didn’t make the discussion personal; he stuck to basic principles that even the most ardent hydrocarbon advocate could agree with. 

Now all he needs is a simple, memorable metaphor.

He finishes strong — and inclusive.

“If there was a button I could press to stop all hydrocarbon usage today, ” Musk says, “I would not press it. It would cause civilization to come to a halt. It would be irresponsible to press that button.”

Also true. Renewable res may be the future, but oil and gas is the present. Hydrocarbons — and the people who find, extract, and supply them — are the present. 

“What does need to happen, if we can,” Musk says, “is to accelerate the transition towards renewables.” He cites Saudi Arabia (and the President of Aramco, who is in the room) as a country with immense hydrocarbons and an enormous amount of sunlight — sunlight that will be there for billions of years. 

“It seems that investing in the solar re,” he says, “is the thing that’s really going to preserve future.” 

And with that, Musk describes a future not just for the planet, but for the businesses — and the people — in the room.

Common ground. Basic principles. Inclusion. A little self-deprecation thrown in for good measure. That’s how you respond to people who don’t agree with you.

Because when you argue and attack, the people with strong opinions tend to hold them even more strongly.

Even the strongest differences in opinion still have more things in common than we think. Finding those commonalities, in a calm, emotionally intelligent way, is where change — on both sides — starts to happen.

Or, at the very least, where people can thoughtfully agree to disagree.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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