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Excerpt: Buy-In: Saving Your Good Idea from Getting Shot Down

It's an age-old, human, and increasingly important problem: You believe in a good idea. You're convinced it is needed badly, and needed now. But you can't make it happen on your own. You need sufficient support in order to implement it and make things better. You or your allies present the plan. You present it well. Then, along with thoughtful issues being raised, come the confounding questions, inane comments, and verbal bullets. It matters not that the idea is needed, insightful, innovative, and logical. It matters not if the issues involved are extremely important to a business, an individual, or even a nation. The proposal is still shot down, or is accepted but without sufficient support, or slowly dies a sad death.

It doesn't have to be this way. In our new book, we offer a single method that can be unusually powerful in building strong support for a good idea. It is an approach that is rarely used or used well and that does not require blinding rhetorical skills or charismatic magic. The method has only a handful of interrelated elements, none of which is complicated. The five elements work together to achieve buy-in by capturing peoples' attention; then with people paying attention, winning over their minds; and with people paying attention, also winning over their hearts.

The most basic and counterintuitive of the elements is the first:

Don't scheme to keep potential opponents, even the sneakiest attackers, out of the discussion. Let them in. Let them shoot at you. Even encourage them to shoot at you!

It would seem logical, when you don't want an idea to be shot down, that you should try to keep the shooters away from the proposal while you are developing sufficient support to get it accepted and then used. With no idea killers around, there are no bullets, or very few, and sensible proposals are much more easily embraced and implemented.

People sometimes use this approach with a good degree of success. But we have observed an alternative that can be much more powerful. The approach turns the very problem of good ideas drawing attacks to your advantage. It does this by solving the single biggest challenge people face when they need to gain buy-in for a good idea: simply getting people's attention.

Without people's attention, you really won't have a chance to explain a hazard or an opportunity, along with your good, practical solution. Distracted people will ignore you. They won't listen carefully or long enough. They won't listen with an open mind. You won't have the chance to gain the emotional commitment that is at the core of true buy-in. And these problems caused by a lack of attention are commonplace, for a number of perfectly understandable reasons.

Think about it. Almost all of us are overwhelmed with literally thousands of communications vying for our attention. Messages from friends, bosses, family, and colleagues via e-mail and cell phone, TV, the Internet, newspapers, and magazines—they all combine to create an impossible information overload. As a result, most messages never make it with clarity into our minds or never make it successfully without distortion.

When people are paying attention, their minds become engaged. That's a crucial requirement for understanding an idea and for overcoming incorrect impressions. You can then use that attention to your advantage in gaining the intellectual and emotional commitment that is at the heart of real support.

Don't try to overcome attacks with tons of data; logic and yet more logic; or lists of reasons why unfair, uninformed, or sneaky attacks are wrong, wrong, wrong. Instead, do what might seem to be the opposite.

It seems obvious: if you have done your homework and someone is trying to shoot down your good idea, you should simply use all your knowledge and data to defuse the attack. So you go over the proposal again. You explain why it is a good proposal. You point out all the flaws in the attack. You offer all the evidence you can think of to support your assertions. And to make sure the sneaky ploy or seemingly sensible but flawed concern is put aside forever, you offer still more evidence and more logic, essentially, shooting the attack sixteen times, assuring that it is dead.

An approach of overwhelming others with data and logic certainly sounds reasonable and certainly can be successful some of the time. But a potential danger is that it can inadvertently make it hard to develop—indeed can even kill—the very quality that must be present in order to build strong buy-in for an idea: crucial attention.

To keep the attention focused, keep your responses—all of them—short, allowing no time for minds to wander. Keep your responses clear—no jargon or complex arguments. And whenever possible, use common sense rather than data or lists to make your point.

Don't try to crush attackers with ridicule, counterattacks, or condescension, even when it seems as though people deserve it, even when a part of you really wants to do just that, and you have the skills to do so.

You need to win hearts and minds to gain true buy-in. Simple, clear, and commonsense responses can do much to win the minds. Respect can do much to win hearts. It is difficult to overstate the negative effects caused by an attitude of disrespect. It can draw attention, but not the kind you want. You lose buy-in, rather than gaining it.

Reacting to an obvious bully by being a bigger bully, dodging bullets and then shooting bigger bullets back, dealing with angry attacks by serving even angrier responses—any actions on your part that aggressively belittle even genuinely unkind attackers—can make an audience sympathetic to those attackers. Shooting back at attackers may be emotionally satisfying for a few moments. But that satisfaction tends to be fleeting.

In an attempt to gain buy-in, treating others in just the opposite way—with clear respect—allows you to take the high ground. Sympathy does not go to the attackers. By treating others with respect, you draw an audience emotionally to your side, where they are more likely to listen carefully and sympathetically. Having them listen with a sympathetic attitude is a huge victory.

Don't focus on the attacker and his or her unfair, illogical, or mean argument (though it will be extremely tempting to do so).

It is natural, when hit with confusion, fear mongering, character assassination, or delay strategies, to focus one's attention on the attacker or attackers. From our observations, we conclude that this is a big mistake. At the risk of stating the obvious, you are seeking the support and buy-in of a large fraction of the people involved, whether that means five people or fifty thousand people, whether it is around the sort of small decisions we make each day or some huge change effort that may take five years in an organization. In both cases, the key to success lies not in winning the hearts and minds of all those who, for whatever reasons, are inclined to try to shoot down a good idea. Rather, it's the thoughts and feelings of the majority that determine whether you win or lose the day.

This simple insight leads to a fourth part of an effective response strategy: watch the crowd very carefully. Don't be pulled into a debate where you focus on a small number of disruptive debaters instead of the large number of judges. Don't become obsessed with the one obnoxious (but clever) heckler. Don't waste your time trying to convert a minority that is so emotionally committed to an ideology that they will never support your idea unless it is changed to fit that ideology.

When you are responding to an attack, the reactions of the majority are the real issue, not the look of pleasure or dislike on the face of the attackers. Pay insufficient attention to the majority, and you may never realize that they are confused, afraid, or being drawn into a delay—or at least you may not realize it quickly enough.

Don't try to wing it, even if you know all the facts thoroughly, even if the idea seems bulletproof, and even if you expect a friendly audience.

Preparation can significantly build confidence and reduce your anxiety. It really can help keep under control any dysfunctional tendency to start a useless fight or a credibility-killing retreat. It can create a calmer and more self-confident feeling, which is priceless when you're faced with intended or innocent attacks. And it can reduce the time you invest in all aspects of preparation because an increasingly calm disposition makes work much more efficient.

Perhaps most of all, the preparation that builds confidence and reduces anxiety can stop that natural tendency to become defensive when hit with "What's your hidden agenda [you creep]"; "This sounds like [something we all dislike]"; and "It's too simplistic [and you're a moron]." Many of the generic, difficult attacks are successful because we become defensive and then attack back. And once a real shooting war starts, whatever you care about becomes at risk.

This is easier than it may sound because none of these actions need be taken with absolute perfection. In a world in which most preparation for buy-in deserves a C grade, B+ preparation can lead to actions that look inspired and are most effective.

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