“Man who say it cannot be done
should not interrupt man doing it”
— Chinese Proverb
In 1943, IBM Chairman Thomas Watson said, “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”
When Fred Smith presented his paper on providing reliable overnight delivery service, his Yale University management professor gave it back with this comment, “The concept is interesting and well-formed, but in order to earn better than a ‘C,’ the idea must be feasible.” Smith went on to found Federal Express Corp.
In rejecting a new band in 1962, Decca Recording Company stated, “We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out.” The band was The Beatles.
What if these people or others around them had listened to these naysayers? Imagine our world if the personal computer were just now being created for the first time. Imagine that we had no reliable overnight delivery service. Where would music be today if John, Paul, George and Ringo had hung their heads, sold their instruments and went to work at the Liverpool docks?
Are you a naysayer? Do you often deal with naysayers in your daily work?
Naysaying is a vital topic in organizational relationships and communication, because if it is allowed to dominate, it has the potential to poison the future. At the same time, naysaying serves a vital role in decision-making, as long as it is controlled and directed toward the success of the organization and the people in it. Whether the naysayer is you—the executive—or other leaders around you, there are several techniques that you can employ to keep the detrimental aspects of naysaying at bay. This requires either restraining yourself or them through dialogue.
In our previous article, we implored executives to think about their intentions and the impact of their actions. This holds true for naysayers. Before you begin to criticize a suggestion, you need to think about your intentions and what the impact of your actions will be.
You may be the kind of person who immediately wants to critique and explore things that might be wrong with a suggestion, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Consider a seasoned editor—errors that might not be obvious to others just jump off of the page for them. The impact of your actions depends not on whether you immediately see a problem with an idea, but rather in how and when you articulate your objections.
It is better to first engage in dialogue, because others might mistake a critique that comes too soon as personal criticism. Even if your intention is not to personally criticize, you may have the impact of handicapping your effectiveness. Although you may have better ways of doing something, they won’t hear you from that point on, because you have effectively shut them down from the start.
Slow down and advocate before you critique. Instead of having criticism be the first thing out of your mouth, find something you like about the idea, and then express that position first. You might say, “I do have some reservations about this idea, but let me tell you what I do like about it…” You might also try, “I have some thoughts on this idea, but first I want to know what you have to say about it.” These simple statements engage them and you in dialogue.
Inquire deeper into the idea for pros and cons before criticizing. What you want to do is get the conversation going. Beware, however, that constant questioning is another form of naysaying that you must watch out for. While you may believe that you are just being inquisitive and probing, others may see too much questioning as a challenge, and they will often become defensive.
If it is not you who is the naysayer, but others, it is up to you to guide them to the aforementioned behavior. Naysayers often “work the crowd,” in a meeting with body language that makes it obvious to everyone that they are dying to immediately shoot down your idea, and they often move from body language to talking with others around them. Noted communication skills trainer and author Dianna Booher has this advice for those situations:
“If the talker wants to express an opposing view, offer that opportunity or at least acknowledge that position: ‘I know that some of you have experiences and ideas to the contrary, and you’ll be welcome to express those at the end of the presentation.’ Such comments remove the urge for these naysayers to begin their comments too early to those seated nearby.”
Another technique you can use with disruptive naysayers in meetings is to acknowledge that the person has an opposing view, but then respond to the person’s opposition by asking them, “What are some things that you can say that are positive about this idea?” In certain meetings, I also like to have this ground rule from the start: participants have to express what they like about an idea before they can criticize it.
If you find yourself being immediately critical of an idea, ask yourself, “What is working?” before saying what you feel is not working. Think of what is behind your criticism. Does it serve the intentions of your organization, or does it serve you or your department’s interests? Using techniques such as these will allow you to get your positive points made before any negativity comes through.
Having said all of that, keep in mind that using all of these communication techniques doesn’t mean that you have to be a doormat, and that you can’t advocate your own position or disagree with those of others. Just remember that timing is the key; make sure that you first get the conversation going.
Engage them in dialogue, and then in the end, if you still disagree, say so, and then express why you object. You will be more likely to get further along in communication, collaboration and consensus later on. By allowing people to talk and explore an idea, they will often gain greater commitment to a subsequent decision.