You might be trying to change the world in some larger or smaller way with your business, but humans, in general, prefer for things to stay the same.

Thanks to a biases hard-wired into our brains that push us to focus on the negative and avoid risk, most people meet bold ideas with skepticism and fear. (Basically, it is the same way an ancestor in our deep past would meet a stranger carrying a big club or an unknown animal with impressively large teeth). How do you overcome this knee-jerk tendency to say 'no, it can't be done' or 'I prefer the status quo, thank you very much'?

In short, you outsmart the skeptics. That's the takeaway of an in-depth new article from Stanford Business School professor Matt Forrest Abrahams written together with Burt Alper that examines the most effective technique for overcoming objections to new ideas. Amidst a slew of great advice on winning over skeptical audiences are these powerful techniques.

1. Be thoughtful about framing.

Calling something "pre-owned" rather than "used" might sound cheesy and obvious, but according to the Stanford article, thoughtfully "framing" your idea in this way can be effective.

"Calling problems 'opportunities' changes the way people approach them. Language matters. How you position your topic can guide the way people see it," Abrahams and Alper write. "For example, to short-circuit an audience's suspicion of new ideas, whenever possible use language that highlights the positive aspects of your subject, such as the potential benefits and successes."

2. Paraphrase emotional objections

If the resistance to your idea seems more emotional than logical, the authors suggest you use paraphrasing to counter the objection. "Paraphrasing is a listening tool where you reflect back what others say in your own words. Effective paraphrasing affords you several benefits (e.g., ensures that you heard someone correctly, values the other person's contribution, allows you time to think, etc.)," they write. "Paraphrasing allows you to acknowledge the emotion of someone's question/objection, then pivot your response to the world of logic."

The authors even offer a helpful list of phrases that you can use to summarize an emotional objection before moving towards a more rational conversation:

  • "So what you are saying/asking is ..."
  • "What is important to you is ..."
  • "You'd like to know more about ..."
  • "The central idea of your question/comment is ..."

They also caution readers against trying to fight fire with fire when it comes to emotional objections. "Think of logic as water to emotion's fire--it's imperative that you bring logic into your response to defuse the objection. Using an emotional response to an emotional objection does nothing to resolve the issue and can actually fan the flames," they explain.

3. Employ analogies (and cliches)

And what if the objection is fact-based rather than emotional? These sound like the easier type to deal with (and in the sense that they're less likely to knock you off your game by inflaming your emotions, they are), but keep in mind that you can't just counter their facts with your own. "Arguing over whose information is 'right' often is futile and negatively affects your credibility," warn the authors.

What's the alternative? Use analogies. "Analogies not only activate the audience's existing mental constructs, which allows for quicker information processing and understanding, but they also provide a particular point of view for the discussion to ensue. For example, when confronted with an objection to your idea of implementing stricter policies, you could compare the situation to transitioning from playing intramural to varsity sports. In so doing, you focus the conversation on rules, scrutiny, and increasing competition," they write.

Doing this well involves a degree of preparation, however. You should have a relevant analogy in your back pocket for likely fact-based objections before you start pitching your idea. But don't spend hours looking for something novel. Cliches actually often make the best analogies. "Since they're so universally understood, they often can quickly manage questions/objections by putting common wisdom on your side," Abrahams and Alper note.

Published on: Oct 14, 2015
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