How to Win Over a Skeptic

| | General Leadership

skepticIn Leading Skeptics and Believers I suggest that if you want to cause change, focus first on the “believers.” While many agreed with that point of view, there was a lot of discussion about what to do with the skeptics.

Some believe you should just ignore them. Others believe you have to at least try to enroll them. While I do believe you should focus your energy on the believers, especially in the beginning of any new endeavor, I also don’t think skeptics can or should be ignored.

In fact, many people are skeptical because of past experience and they just don’t want to set themselves up for disappointment. When a leader makes a commitment to progress and change, and does not follow through they can actually leave the organization worse off than if they never even began. This is because the believers of yesterday, once let down or even scorned, will often become the skeptics of tomorrow.

There are of course those who are more committed to their skepticism than they are to progress. They are usually pretty easy to spot because in every encounter they will throw up reasons why not and other roadblocks to progress and conversations usually end in a debate that is never resolved.

Then there are the cynics – the people who are not only skeptical, but committed to ensuring no one succeeds. Given their commitment to proving themselves right that “this will never work,” success will naturally drive these folks out of the organization or cause a profound change of heart. I’ve witnessed both. And I can tell you that those who experience the profound change of heart become the most ardent supporters, while those who don’t and leave are not missed.

Here are three things you can do to win over the skeptics:

1. Interrupt the mindset that you are right and they are wrong.

Those who are committed can be very righteous. If you think being committed is the “right way to be” and that anyone who shows skepticism is wrong you will close down any hope of a constructive conversation. You may even unwittingly create a few cynics.

Another related belief to challenge is that positive is good and negative is bad. Assuming there is a gap between where you are now and where you aspire to be then there are likely things to deal with that could be considered negative. If you can’t talk about the things that are not working you can’t deal with them.

2. Recognize the value in their questions and challenges.

Some people naturally jump in with both feet without considering the risks. Others spend so much time focusing on the positive that they fail to see the real issues that must be dealt with here and now. Success in any major change or bold initiative requires that you continually face the reality of the present.

Skeptics can help the optimists stay rooted in reality while the optimists make sure the current reality does not predict the future.

Also, beware of the trap of thinking skepticism indicates a lack of commitment. Consider the possibility that a skeptic is simply someone who is not ready to trust in the future yet. That does not mean they aren’t committed. After all, if they weren’t they might not have so much to say about what’s in the way.

Instead of trying to combat the skepticism, try listening to understand. You will likely learn something that can be helpful. Listening past someone’s skepticism will help earn their trust in you. At some point they may just start to trust in the future.

3. Enroll rather than convince.

Engage with people based on what they are committed to rather than at the level of opinions. Your opinion vs. their opinion will lead to an endless, unsatisfying debate. No one will win and the divided opinions will just get more deeply rooted.

Want to shift the conversation with a skeptic? Figure out what matters to them and help them discover how working together can make a difference in what they care most about.

And remember, you can only enroll people based on their commitments not what you think is important.

Now I’d love to hear from you. What are your best strategies for dealing with skeptics and skepticism?


Enter A Comment

@mssackstein   |   01 August 2013   |   Reply

I think the advice you give to help “enroll” the skeptics are good. We need to break their patterns like you suggest allowing them to even consider possibilities. A lot of times, these folks just want to be heard, so take what they say seriously and open up a line of a dialogue with them about concerns. Lastly, the piece of advice you give at the end for not trying to convince them, I think is most useful. It is often exhausting and fruitless to try to make them believers. That often takes a lot of time and a big person to admit their own change of heart. It doesn’t readily happen. Other things to try is possibly offering them the information without the expectation of their taking it. Try to include them even if they aren’t fully involved. Never give up on them no matter how many times they shut you down.
Thanks for this thoughtful post; I enjoyed reading it.

Susan Mazza   |   03 August 2013   |   Reply

“Break their patterns” is a great way to put it Starr. It does indeed take a big person to admit a change of heart. And if we listen compassionately we can create the space that invites and welcomes that change. Thanks for sharing your insights!

Jagan Mantha   |   02 August 2013   |   Reply

Nice post indeed .. What if we have an affirmation to ourselves like “Working with a skeptic can possibly be therapuetic for myself”. It’s definite exercise to one’s persuasion muscles.

Susan Mazza   |   03 August 2013   |   Reply

What a great way to frame the challenge Jagan!! Thank you!

Chris   |   02 August 2013   |   Reply

I have come to believe that the only way to win over a skeptic is to ask them to try and suspend their disbelief… Just long enough to give you a chance of showing them they could be wrong. Just this one time, maybe 🙂

Susan Mazza   |   03 August 2013   |   Reply

Yes Chris, helping someone to suspend their disbelief is definitely key to getting through. Although Ihave also learned that unless I do the same and suspend my belief that I am right there isn’t much of an opening for a fruitful conversation.

Lynn Gomez   |   03 August 2013   |   Reply

I remember the first time my mentor shared this article with me….yes it was over 20 years ago. Enrolling vice demanding/convincing goes a long way…well done and thank you for bringing this back up to many “new” leaders.

Susan Mazza   |   03 August 2013   |   Reply

Thanks Lynn. Yes, enrollment is definitely one of those timeless distinctions!

Bill Benoist   |   05 August 2013   |   Reply

I am a definite fan of enrolling the individual.

For years I worked in IT where the only constant seemed to be change. Whenever we rolled out an upgrade or new application to the field, we would first have a test group of individuals.

By design, we would select a group of some of our most vocal skeptics in the field – users who fought hard against change. These skeptics would not only find all the nuances in an application, they eventually became our biggest supporters when the applications were released.

Susan Mazza   |   07 August 2013   |   Reply

Great insight, excellent approach! Thanks for jumping in here Bill

Those hard core skeptics in any technical field are usually very smart people whose opinion carries a lot of weight. Brilliant way of empowering them in a way that also improves the product – a true win-win.

Shawn Murphy   |   07 August 2013   |   Reply

First totally dig the new look to your blog. Your first point resonates with me. The moment we go down the path of right and wrong we temporarily cut off the availability of connection, partnership. I say temporarily because, as an optimist, it’s possible to recover from making someone wrong.

We can use more leaders who are willing to look at where they are making others or another wrong. Imagine progress our organizations would see. Imagine what the workplace would become. Imagine the solutions customers would benefit from.

As usual, you bring us great topics to chew on.


Susan Mazza   |   07 August 2013   |   Reply

It’s a good thing that we can recover from making someone wrong because we all do this on occasion. Many time it’s unintentional and even a bit of a blind spot for us.

Passion and belief can occur as righteousness to the skeptic and as leaders we need to be mindful of that.

Thanks for your kind words about my site and article. I always appreciate it when you bring your optimism over here 🙂

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