The Next Level of Intelligence for 21st Century Leaders

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Stale Cliches = Fresh Ideas?

It is a cliche that most cliches are true, but then like most cliches, that cliche is untrue.  ~Stephen Fry


Cliches act as a social lubricant in our day to day conversations.  We use them to evoke a social connection or create a common understanding from which the conversation can flow.  Cliches make dialogue easier, especially when we have to talk with people who we don’t know or who we think are different from us.


Cliches indeed make some conversations easier, but they also prevent conversations in which new ideas arise.  When we lean on cliches, we signal to our brains to keep the conversation safe…and stale.  If you want to encourage conversations where new ideas and creative thinking are generated, either ban the cliches (easier said than done!!) or create constructive collisions between opposing cliches in order to spark innovative thought.


One exercise that I do with leadership teams/committees is to divide  the team into two groups and assign each group one of two conflicting cliches.  The groups then have to take their respective cliches and apply them to analyze the culture of the overall team/committee and come up with specific examples of interactions over the past twelve months that support their conclusions.


Here are a few examples of conflicting cliche pairs:

  • Knowledge is power. ** Ignorance is bliss.

  • Look before you leap. ** He who hesitates is lost.

  • The squeaky wheel gets the oil. ** The nail that sticks out gets hammered.

  • Nothing ventured, nothing gained. ** Better safe than sorry.

  • The only constant is change. ** The more things change, the more they stay the same.

  • The best things in life are free.  ** You get what you paid for.

  • You are never too old to learn. ** You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

  • The early bird gets the worm. ** Good things come to those who wait.


The interesting thing for the groups is to see how their assigned cliche drove not only their discussions but also their memories.  Although they were all part of the same team, the different groups remembered different interactions, events and results because their thoughts and memories were being filtered through the cliche.


Obvious, right?  Of course it is obvious!  Yet, we allow cliches and euphemisms to drive our dialogues without pausing or questioning how our thoughts and memories are being filtered without our knowledge or permission.  Cliches can often be the biggest obstacle to new thoughts entering the conversation, and they wield their power implicitly and subtly.


So, what do we do?  Well, cliches are not going anywhere, so we integrate cliches actively and deliberately into discussions in order to prevent ourselves from falling into “cliche think.”  When discussing a problem, throw a cliche into the discussion and ask how the discussion changes if the cliche was indeed true.  Then, throw a contradicting cliche (trust me, every cliche has an opposing twin!) and ask how the discussion changes if this twin cliche is also true.


By making the filters explicit, our brains shift from reflexive thinking to deliberate thinking, and if we are not thinking deliberately, we are not thinking at all!  (And that’s not a cliche…well, at least not yet!)


For a deeper dive into the differences between reflexive thinking and deliberate thinking, check out the “Intellectual CORE” concept in The Next IQ: The Next Level of Intelligence for 21st Century Leaders.