This is a guest article by Curt Wang.
You’re in a meeting when a colleague brings up an idea that you think (or even know) is not so great. For many of us, our first instinct is to shoot the idea down immediately, one way or another, before it gains traction. How often have you suffered through that challenging situation?
When it comes to gaining influence, remember the law of reciprocity. The more you support others, the more they will support you. If you want people to adopt your ideas in the future, you need to be collaborative yourself. You need to support their ideas, or at a minimum, show respect and a willingness to listen before weighing in. Squash a colleague’s pet initiative too quickly or be perceived as a naysayer, and you may find that your initiatives will increasingly fail to receive full and fair consideration.
The key to your success is to learn to reject or redirect bad ideas in a thoughtful, positive and more collaborative way. Consider employing one or more of the six tips below:
- Pause. Take a deep breath before weighing in. Often, someone else’s idea can “hijack” you during a meeting because it poses a threat to your own objectives, goals, priorities or resources. As human beings, we are wired to identify and react immediately to anything that may harm us. By simply pausing, you are allowing your reasoning power to catch up to your emotional response. If you wait until you are fully composed, you will deliver your response in a more thoughtful, reasoned and kind way.
- Allow others to weigh in first. Particularly when your gut reaction is negative, suppress the urge to be the first to jump in with your opinion. Why object before you have others’ perspective? You may hear a thought that sways your opinion. Or the opposite may happen; someone else brings up the challenges you were going to raise first. Even if you later reinforce the concerns, you are not a lone dissenter. A CFO was tired of always being the bad guy when he had to shut down ideas for which the business case was not sound. He started implementing this technique in leadership team meetings and found that he had to be the naysayer only half as often. Many leaders intentionally weigh in last so that they can hear the opinions of their reports without biasing them first with their own thoughts.
- Be curious first; pose questions rather than pass judgment. Ask open-ended questions with an open mind. Make sure the person feels fully heard, and be careful not to take small stabs at the idea in the phrasing of your questions. To quote Steven Covey “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Even if you ultimately disagree with or reject the idea, you will be in a much better position to state your objection in a way that acknowledges the idea presenter’s point of view. The person will receive the feedback much better if he or she feels that they have been fully heard and understood. Remember how frustrated you felt the last time you presented an idea and it was shut down before you felt you had the chance to fully explain it.
- Instead of stating why an idea can’t be done, state what is required from your perspective to make the idea work. Phrased this way—what needs to be done to make an idea work—your objection to the idea is served up as a problem to be solved rather than a flat rejection. You shift from someone who is saying “No” to someone who is giving helpful insights and facts. While you may actually see the challenge you pose as insurmountable, often others will bring creative solutions to the table that may make the idea feasible. A marketing director in a manufacturing company proposed an idea for a new product. The operations director’s first instinct was to jump in and say “We can’t make your product because we don’t have the right equipment.” But instead he said “In order to make your products we will need to plan for having access to the right equipment, which we currently don’t have.” That led to a full discussion about what it would take to lease, buy or outsource the production. Once the marketing person had a greater understanding of the different options and their costs, she came to the conclusion that the idea was not feasible.
- Help the other person save face whenever possible. If you feel compelled to shut an idea down, ask yourself, “Do I need to shut the idea down right now and during this meeting?” Perhaps you can circle back with the idea presenter after the meeting to meet one-on-one. Shutting down a staff member’s idea in your department meeting is a good way to help ensure no one on your staff will risk bringing up new ideas in the future that might be extremely valuable to the success of your team and organization. If peers lose face because of you, there is a good chance that they will increasingly work around you and you will be the last to know about their future initiatives. Circling back after the meeting also provides you more time to reflect and prepare. You can gather more facts and information, be more thoughtful and tactful in sharing your opinion, and perhaps get into a longer and more open conversation.
- Acknowledge the parts of an idea you can agree with. Even if you can’t agree with the entire idea, acknowledging components can help to validate the presenter of the idea, at least in part. Very often there are aspects of ideas that are valuable and can be evolved to be very usable and helpful. Imagine yourself saying “I like this part of the idea; let’s dig deeper into the other part.” Provide recommendations on what might make the idea better or more workable. Even when his idea has flaws, the person might be calling attention to an important, underlying problem that needs to be solved.
In conclusion, don’t lose sight of the fact that if a truly bad idea needs to be challenged, challenge it. The primary emphasis here is not to change what you need to say, but on the process and timeline you choose to say it in order to maintain social capital and goodwill. Remember, soon will come the time when it is you who is the one striving to influence others to buy into your idea.
Curt Wang is an executive coach at Make The Leap! Coaching. He coaches smart, creative and successful executives and professionals to reach higher levels of performance and achieve their business and career goals. He is also an expert and professional speaker on the topics of change leadership and organizational change. For more information on his speaking and coaching, please visit www.maketheleapcoaching.com.