When we’re little, we join our friends to play with our toys. Legos, animal figures, Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars. Race them, hold them up to see which is taller or rounder, try fitting them together in different ways. We learn to share and play nice.
Once we’re big, we play with ideas. We bring our best ones, our pretty-good ones, and even some really clunky ones that we still like for one reason or another. We join friends on a porch, around a fire, or over a meal instead of hunkered on the floor, but we play with the ideas just like toys. We zoom them around, compare them, and share opinions about them. We race them, we hold them up to see which one is taller or rounder, and we try fitting them together in different ways.
And we Play Nice.
It’s like this.
I’ve gotten some shiny new ideas and I just can’t wait to show them to you. I’m carrying them around with me everywhere lately. They’re great, look!
You pick one up and heft it. Good and solid! It’s not fancy, but it’s sturdy – definitely a classic.
You hand me a cool new idea you found. Interesting concept! As I handle it, a panel comes loose in my hand, and you look stricken – have I broken it? No, it seems to be designed that way, it has a compartment inside - cool!
I grin and hold out a really flashy idea. You’ve seen the commercials, amazing to see it up close. So shiny! Look at the colors! And the lines – irresistibly sleek, almost seductive – it feels so perfect in your hand. Wait, look. You turn it over and show me: It’s bristling with sharp edges, pointy and jagged. Safe for whoever holds it, but downright dangerous for others nearby. And you point - there’s a crack – something is leaking out, something nasty with a toxic smell. Yuck, I hadn’t even noticed. Turns out this one’s not really a nice idea at all.
We Play Nice. That means: If someone presents an idea, it’s okay to look at it, turn it over, and see how it works.
It’s not okay to get upset if someone points out that it has sharp corners, or that it may make your hair smell terrific but it’s made out of endangered kittens and maybe that’s kind of awful.
Our ideas: we race them, we hold them up to see which is taller or rounder, and we try fitting them together in different ways.
Some are going to be lumpy and crooked or poorly made. That’s why we play with them together: to share, compare, improve and build better ones. To see if you catch something I overlooked. To see if I perceive it as you do, or in a new way. To get recommendations or suggestions: you showed me some problems with mine that I missed. Is there something better?
We share our ideas to show that they’re not flimsy cheap things made to look impressive, but that they can actually withstand scrutiny and heavy use.
Playing Nice means you understand that sharing an idea is an invitation to others to offer their own impressions of it.
If you only want unquestioning admiration for your ideas, that’s not Playing Nice. You’re asking people to provide a service, and you need to pay them for it.
If your idea is too precious for others to touch, leave it at home.
Engaging your idea, playing with it, inspecting it: It’s an invitation to join in, be included. You brought something, let’s see, let’s see. Show me how the doors open, and how the hood pops up. If I say I really like the color but I don’t think it’s as aerodynamic as it could be, the message is not your thing sucks and you suck. The message is We both like little cars, some have cool stuff and others have stuff that isn’t cool, let’s go into detail about what we each think about those things. We enter a dialogue, and because we Play Nice we understand that judging ideas is not to be confused with judging people. Running your idea through an obstacle course is the equivalent of running your Matchbox car through a racetrack with lots of loop-de-loops and switchbacks and jumps. If you don’t want to do that, then why did you bring it out? How do you know what it can really do, how do you know the limits? Don’t you want to play?
Playing Nice means questioning ideas is okay, but judging people is not okay.
Playing Nice means trusting each other’s sincerity. It means trusting that people don’t love us less and aren’t ‘being mean’ if they engage our ideas with anything short of endorsement. It also means that we don’t do that to others, either.
Playing Nice means good faith: that if we debate, we do it sincerely: not playing dumb, not pretending to misunderstand, not to deflect or distract or escalate to ‘win’. It trusts that ‘I don’t know’ is perfectly respectable. It understands that ‘Because I Said So’ or ‘Because God Told Me So’ are too arbitrary to be valid justifications for anything.
Playing Nice means we can trust the sanctity of mutual respect and honesty, accept one another but still safely disagree when we have to. We can rely on one another for intellectual vigor and candor, and embrace an attitude of always trying to learn more, understand better, and develop a greater capacity for empathy.