In 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?