The Smooth Handle

One of Thomas Jefferson’s canons of conduct reads as follows:

Take things always by their smooth handle.

I’ve been intrigued by this statement since I first heard it. What does it mean? The way I interpret it is that there are multiple ways of dealing with problems. Some are easier than others — hence, the smooth handle. “Easier” doesn’t mean the most expedient; it means the best way to resolve the problem with minimum fuss or suffering for everyone involved. This may entail some hardship for the person deciding, but if it solves the problem with minimal harm, then some sacrifice may be called for.

As designers, we’re sometimes called to express unpopular perspectives. For example, an important stakeholder in a project may be suggesting something that is counter to the overall vision or direction of the project. Assuming you’re completely certain of your position, what do you do about this? Do you confront the person? If so, do you do so publicly, in a venue where their ego and reputation may be threatened? Or do you do seek a private channel or an intermediary? Perhaps there’s a way to help them come to their own understanding of what the issue is, and why their position would harm the overall project.

When faced with a difficult situation, we should strive to respond in a way that makes the overall situation better. We may be right, but that doesn’t mean other people need to be made to feel wrong. Whenever I’m faced with such a challenge, I look for the smooth handle and consider how to use it to move things in the right direction.