Thanks to millions of years of evolution, we are all pretty good at recognizing situations in which we are called on to compete. Our communication skills are tuned to allow us to make ourselves heard in these situations and to get our point across. Which is why we all seem to do such a poor job when we are faced with no competition, but rather opposition. Oh, oh. What to do now?
So what is opposition? Opposition is what happens when the group of people that you are trying to communicate with are just dead set against what you have to say. If you show up in a situation where you are going to be telling your team about a great new documentation system that the company has mandated that everyone will start using, you will encounter opposition if nobody that you are talking to wants to do documentation in the first place — it’s not that the new system is a bad idea (although it might be), it’s just that everyone rejects the idea of doing documentation.
What’s funny is that although in technical fields we struggle with how to deal with opposition, the folks who work in politics deal with it on a daily basis. Our elected officials are forced to deal with opposition everyday and so they have developed effective ways of dealing with it. We could learn a thing or two from them:
- Co-opt The Other Side’s Issue: this is one of my favorite approaches. Don’t go head-to-head with the oppositon. Instead take a careful look at what’s motivating their position: why doesn’t your team want to do documentation? If you show respect for their underlying issue and then go ahead and propose a different way of solving it, you’ll basically cut off the oppositon at the knees. In our documentation case, if you show the team that offshore developers do a poor job of native language documentation and by doing a good job of documentation their work they will be able to keep more jobs onshore, then you’ve accomplished your co-opting.
- Redefine The Issue: Initially an issue may start out as a tug-of-war. In order to solve this problem, if you redefine it in such a way that it is no longer a tug-of-war, then you can win the other side over. In our documentation example, the issue could start out as a “the company is telling us to do more work”. This could be redefined as “Other companies have created products that interface with our product. In order for them (and us) to be successful, they have to understand how our product works and so documentation is needed.” All of a sudden, what was something that was being created for the faceless company becomes a tool for specific small business owners.
If you can become skilled at learning to distinguish opposition from competition, then you will have a hard-to-find skill that you can start to use proactively. Do a little bit of research on the group that you will be communicating with. If there is strong opposition to what you will be discussing with them, it will probably come out quickly. Look for ways to co-opt or redefine the issue and you’ll have accomplished half of your job before you even open your mouth.