7 rules for persuasive dissent

It is difficult to be a dissident. When you question widely accepted beliefs, you tend to feel a lot more pain than pleasure. People are likely to reject your opinions and reject you from future interactions. This is because groups prefer consensus. They want their existing views validated, maintain a predictable environment, and work quickly toward goals.

And yet, when you think your team or organization is missing something important, going in the wrong direction, or taking too many risks, you need to speak up. Even if your message is not well received in the short term, decisions made from a diversity of opinions generally lead to better results in the long term.

Consider Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963. In the three years since, only 33% of Americans approved of the content. But, over time, his public dissent from prevailing views on civil rights for black Americans led to big changes in laws and attitudes. In 2011, public approval for the speech rose to 94%. Effective dissent challenges groupthink, reminds the majority that there are alternative perspectives and possibilities, and inspires everyone to think more creatively about solutions.

So how do principled and often marginalized rebels like MLK ensure their ideas are heard and elaborated? What’s the best way to challenge the misguided opinions of authority figures? In your professional life, how do you overcome resistance and defensiveness and gain colleagues on your side?

Six decades of scholarly research offer insight into what someone who lacks power and status can do to gain a receptive audience.

Show how your work has benefited the team.

Perhaps you have some much-needed skill, specialized knowledge, or extensive experience that has allowed you to play a “glue role” in an organization. You answer questions, help people, and amplify the contributions of others.

You can also highlight mentorship, service, sacrifices, and overdrive in the face of time, financial, and personnel constraints. This will remind people that you have accumulated a large number of “idiosyncrasy credits” – that is, a license to cash in on the goodwill you have earned and challenge the majority opinion.

Pass the group threat test.

Illustrate that you have the best interests of the group at heart. Show that your primary concern is to increase the team’s chances of success and sustainability. Acknowledge potential upfront costs or short-term pain points, but explain that you are focused on a better long-term future. If you are likely to benefit from the suggested guidance, resolve this conflict of interest. You want to inspire confidence and spark curiosity, not fear.

Pass these first two tests and you gain an audience that will scrutinize the message. It is no longer about you, the messenger. It’s a huge accomplishment. Now you need to deliver a high quality, persuasive message. There are several ways to maximize your chances of success.

Get creative with your consistency.

Stay on point no matter who you talk to or what skepticism emerges. In 97 studies of persuasive appeals, the strongest predictor of success was message consistency.

But recognize that blind repetition often doesn’t work. What triggers and retains curiosity is expressing the same message in different ways. Use anecdotes and stories as well as data. Include specific details about the benefits of the ideas. Help people imagine what they will be doing, thinking and feeling six months and a year from now. Make the relevance of your message clear to each person and connect them to what is deeply interesting and valuable to them. Although you don’t know which arguments will appeal to whom, you can have a master list to choose from.

Rely on objective information.

Label what is a subjective opinion and what is based on evidence. You gain the trust of an audience by anticipating their questions and having the answers ready. Show how your own view has updated over time in response to new, high-quality information.

Address barriers and risks.

It may seem intuitive to just focus on the positives and what an audience will gain. But it’s important to be upfront about the difficulty of executing your idea and the dangers that could arise as you pursue it. Transparency enhances persuasive appeal.

Encourage collaboration.

Reduce the distance between you and your audience. Use “we” instead of “I”. Study and adopt the expertise of your teammates and explicitly ask for their help to improve your idea. Show that you know their background and ask them to build on that knowledge, strength, and skills. Give them opportunities to critique and make improvements.

Also, try to meet with potential critics in private (instead of public forums) so that you can effectively address their concerns. Let them know how helpful they were and give them credit as contributors to the solutions.

Go into every conversation with an open mind. What you own is a work in progress, and the public will guide you in designing the next, best iteration.

Acquire help.

Challenging activities, like dissent, are less intimidating when supported by friends. Over the past few decades, scientists have discovered that the mere thought of existing healthy relationships empowers us to believe that more is possible and to act bravely. When we know our allies are just a phone call away, we consider their capabilities part of our own supply and can act with greater confidence and resilience.

Results aren’t guaranteed, but these seven rules ensure a greater likelihood of winning an audience and turning dissenting ideas into action. What the world needs now are not conventional thinkers, but people who dare to differ, deviate and challenge to make their organizations – and society – a better place.

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