Consent to Proceed

A little extra friction in a conversation can unlock a lot more confidence.

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Around 3 minutes to read

We problem-solving types are a real pain-in-the-butt sometimes. We’re usually bad listeners. We’re ever ready to submit a solution before people are even halfway done telling us where they’re stuck.

The standard advice is to ​listen to understand, not to reply​. Let them finish their full thought and think through it before you offer a response.

Lately, I’ve been adding one extra thing to this pause:

I ask for consent to proceed.

When someone’s sharing with me—it could be a friend, a mentee, a former client, my kids, my wife—I try to listen to every detail. When they’re done sharing, I say, “I have some thoughts about that. Can I share them with you?”

It’s an extra moment of verification that they actually want my feedback. Sometimes people just wanna vent and don’t need problem-solving. I used to try asking at the beginning of the conversation, but it felt more awkward, like when you call roadside assistance because your tire blew out on the highway and ask you for a bunch of unrelated personal information like your home address before they actually help you. I JUST NEED YOU TO SEND A TOW TRUCK WHO CARES WHAT MY HOME ADDRESS IS RIGHT NOW?!!! I digress.

When someone I care about wants to talk, I let them talk. No need to preface; lay it on me. Then, when they’re done, I ask for consent to share my reactions. Sometimes they say no, and I respect their boundaries. Other times, that’s exactly what they want, and I feel extra confident in responding because they gave me ​permission to do what I wanted to do anyway​.

The first time you do this, you might feel like you’re being extra annoying. Like, they’re talking to you because they want your opinion, right? So why do you have to ​ask​?

There’s a concept in basketball called an “extra pass,” where a semi-open player looks to pass the ball one more time to a more open player for a higher-percentage shot.

For the first player, making the extra pass could feel annoying. A lot of times, this first player is a better shooter than the person they’d be making the extra pass to. But that’s why the extra pass works. The defense usually is drawn to the first, better shooter, leaving the second person more open. It’s trading a good shot by a great shooter for a better shot from a slightly less good shooter. The tradeoff is almost always worth it.

Asking for consent is annoying when you’re not used to asking for it. But you’re trading a good shot for a better one. When you have consent, you can proceed more confidently. It allows for a better, more open conversation.

Do it enough times and it’ll feel more natural to you. Do it enough times and people will start to appreciate it about you.

The more you develop this dynamic with the people you talk to, the more you can unlock some “advanced” techniques too.

I recently talked to a friend who had a parenting dilemma, something I’m almost always reticent to talk about. Parenting is often so subjective and context-relevant that telling someone how to parent feels inappropriate to me, so I tend to shy away from it. But, it was a close friend and they seemed desperate, so we continued.

After they were done sharing their story, I asked for consent to proceed. But I didn’t only say, “I have thoughts; can I share them?” I used a variation: “I have thoughts. Can I challenge some of your thinking here? Can I push?” This question gave my friend a extra moment to prepare mentally and emotionally to be challenged. (I know this because they old me afterwards how much they appreciated this gesture.) If they weren’t ready for that, asking them for consent gave them one last out before some tough love would be directed their way.

With a different friend, we have a long-established technique of asking for consent to proceed, which unlocks a new kind of “advanced” technique. When they’re sharing a thought with me, they build the consent right into their story. Somewhere along as they’re talking to me, they’ll say something like, “And you have permission to push me on this one,” or “I’d really just love to hear what you think I’m doing well here… I’m not ready for criticism just yet.” It sets the context and the boundaries of the conversation we’re going to have, and it establishes both of our willingness—or unwillingness—to go there.

Have you used consent to proceed in your conversations and relationships? How has it helped you? Reply and let me know.

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