Dealing with Naysayers

If you get caught in a riptide, the best way to survive is swim with it – go in the direction it’s carrying you. When people try to overpower the tide, they drown.  Instead you should use the tides’ energy to go elsewhere.

I was working with a Chief Marketing Officer who was launching a new initiative.  It was sexy, it was exciting, and it was well researched. When he presented it to the larger team, they were excited. But one guy, we’ll call him Ned, was negative.  He wasn’t overtly critical, at least not at first. But his body language communicated volumes. He started with eye rolling, moved on to heavy sighs, and by the time my client was laying out the implementation Ned’s arm were folded and he was shaking his head. The worst part was, the effect Ned had on the rest of the team. They went from being excited, to worrying more about Ned’s response than the actual initiative.

We all deal with the Negative Neds and Nellies, the active naysayers trying to derail, and/or minimize your effort. If you try to overpower them, you’ll drown.

Instead, you need to move with their energy, not fight it.

If you’re a forward thinking leader, you’re always going to have people asking you to slow down, or poking holes in your plans. Sometimes, this feedback can be valuable. Other times, it’s discouraging for you and can be damaging to the enthusiasm of the rest of your team.

It’s tempting to try to push through negativity, or ignore it. Instead, say something like, “Ned, what are your thoughts on this?”

This defuses the naysayer instead of letting them continue to stew in the corner.

After you give the person a chance to speak, the first step in dealing with negativity is to validate it. It seems counterintuitive, but we humans survive based on our ability to find and avoid the risk.

When you dismiss someone, their fight or flight response goes into overdrive, and the person doubles down on the negative.

When you validate them, it takes them off of the defensive.

Imagine Ned answers your “what are your thoughts” question saying, “We’ve tried this before and it didn’t work.”

You could say, “It will work this time Ned, because I have a better plan,” but that will just make him defensive. Instead say, “Ned, you’re right, we can’t have another failure.”

Ned’s brain says, “Yes! I’m right! I avoided risk. Go me.” Ned’s brain gives him a dose of the feel good chemical dopamine, and he becomes more emotionally engaged.

Then you can channel Ned’s energy into problem solving by following the, “You’re right,” with a question that gets him involved: “How do you think we can mitigate that risk? Can you research some solutions for us?”

Even if you know the answer, Ned will be more emotionally engaged if he finds it himself.

Asking questions instead of telling Ned to get out of your way demonstrates that you as a leader want his insight, and you value what he’s saying. It makes Ned feel included, rather than like an outsider.

Our client went back to his Ned. He used questions to get Ned engaged, he validated Ned and carved out a (small) space for Ned to be part of the project. With some positive reinforcement, Ned eventually became a valuable member of the project team.

Sometimes the best you can do is neutralize the naysayer. But sometimes, with a little effort, you can turn your naysayer into your champion.