When someone is partially right

I run a lot or workshops, so I get into a lot of arguments.

Of course, we like to call it robust discussion when we do so.  And of course I am generally facilitating rather than debating.

So I need to know how to keep conversations “robust enough to be valuable” and “respectful enough to build relationships rather than strain them”.  I therefore employ a range of conflict management techniques when facilitating other people’s discussions.

But sometimes my problem is that I am running a presentation or training course and someone objects to one of my points in a way that is (either by intent or accident) inflammatory and distracting.

For example I once said “blah blah, so if you want a team to be effective then you will need to empower people to make their own decisions”.

The response I got was “no you don’t.  The most effective teams I have been in have been driven by the top.  Everyone knows what they are meant to do and is moving in the same direction”.

Sadly this was a course on empowering teams through servant leadership as part of a change management initiative.  And the same guy, along with a couple of others were not keen on the whole change initiative.

I tried one technique that I often use when I have no idea what to say.  I asked “Can you expand on that?”.   Sadly he and his buddy did, explaining that strong leadership was necessary in tough times, which is where the company is and that therefore empowering people would typically lead to chaos.  So empowerment is what we always pretend we want, when we will really only ever reward managers who are tough and demanding and deliver at the expense of their people.

I could use open questions to further explore areas such as this, but we were already getting off track and at risk of running out of time.

Or I could have disputed what was said, since I had ample evidence to demonstrate that empowered teams are better.  But I feared that a couple of the participants would have dragged the debate on without even listening to my evidence – and some of the other participants were already over watching the show.

I thought of asking the rest of the group for their views, but I was already aware that this guy was both very senior and intimidating to some of the people there.

So I did what I probably should have done earlier.  I agreed specifically with the part that was true and utterly ignored the part that was not.

So I used a specific response someone taught me:

  • To give him recognition I said “you are right”.  I would not have said this if he was completely wrong but in this case some of what was being said was true;
  • But I don’t want to say that all the allegations are right and nor do I want to get into a long conversation of ones that are wrong.  So I specifically state what was right – “… strong leadership is important in a crisis.  People need to know what the goal is and they need confidence that the team is heading in the right direction”
  • Then I brought the conversation back into where I wanted to be going with the course.  “and that brings us to the next point …”.

This is an approach that works well in many different situations.  The key is to do each stage deliberately, concisely and in order:

  1. Validate the person – say “you are right”
  2. Specifically state the point that was correct, in one sentence (and completely ignore the exaggerations, giant leaps of logic, or controversial loaded questions).
  3. Move on with the next sentence, either with a smooth link to the next topic, or even a clumsy “so now I would like to move onto …”.  (don’t say “does that make sense to you” or do anything else to reopen the conversation).

Practice the approach in safe environments and then use in in tough facilitations.  You will be surprised how well it works.

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