How To Get Agreement From Someone Saying No
Riddle me this.
What pattern works as well with a negative person at work as it does with a two year old at home? The Polarity Pattern!
Riddle me another one. What do you get when you tell a two-year-old to go to bed when the older kids are still up? A polarity response!
The conversation descends along these lines. You ask a person to do something. You ask nicely. You are reasonable. And then they say, “I don’t want to (do something that you want me to do) To which you reply, “But you have to do it.” And it’s straight downhill from there.
With a kid it goes like this. You tell your two year old, “Time to go to bed.” Your two year old clouds up, then tells you, “I don’t want to go to bed.” And you say, “Too bad. You have to go to bed. It’s your bedtime.” This signals to them that they should dig in their heels and refuse. “No.” That’s your signal to become more insistent. “Don’t talk back to me! You’ll do what I tell you to or else!” To which they reply, “Someday, I’m going to be a teenager, and I’ll make your life miserable for making me go to bed when I don’t want to!” So you raise your voice, threaten them with a punishment, and eventually gain their compliance through coercion.
Smooth. Want a better idea? USE the polarity response! Because it turns out that when people don’t want to do something, they’re having one, and using what’s there is more likely to work than fighting or withdrawing from it. Let’s replay this conversation in a new way.
“It’s time to go to bed.” “But I don’t want to.” So you say, “You don’t? Gosh, ok. Then you can’t go to your nice comfortable bed and rest so you’ll feel great tomorrow. Instead, you have to stay up all night! To which they say, “But I’m tired.” And you say, “But you can’t go to bed.” And they say, “But I want to go to bed.” And you say, “Alright then. If that’s what you want!”
The good news is that this pattern works just as well with Negative People, probably because they are in the adversarial position already.
I once had an opportunity to observe a brilliant therapist use this technique on a depressed patient, who was doing his best to convince the therapist that he was completely hopeless. When all else failed, the therapist playfully agreed with him, saying,
“Okay, you win. Of the thousands of unhappy people that I have worked with, you have convinced me that you are the most hopeless, worthless human being I have ever seen! There’s no point in trying to help you. You are doomed, completely beyond help.”
The patient looked shocked as he considered that for a long moment, then replied,
“Come on. I’m not that bad.” To which the therapist replied, “You’re not? You sure?” To which the patient replied, “Yes, I’m sure.” And that’s when the change work began.
Another time, I was there when a CEO was complaining to his assistant how the employees in his company were inefficient, incompetent, and utterly incapable of doing a single thing right. His assistant, with a look of utmost earnestness on his face, suggested, “You’re right. Let’s take them all outside, shoot them, and burn the building down!” The CEO laughed at this idea, then admitted, “Alright, it isn’t that bad!”
There are two ways to apply this polarity principle when dealing with your Negative Person. The first is to bring up the negatives before they do. If you can anticipate that they are going to attack your idea and point out its flaws anyway, might as well invite them to do it so that they are on your side!
You say, “Here’s my idea, and here’s where I see it has problems. Bill, break it down for us.” The Negative Person hears that you are approaching your idea realistically, and may actually be satisfied. “No, that’s okay. As long as you’re aware of the shortcomings, I’m onboard.”
A second way to use this is to just agree with the hopelessness of the situation, and take it one step further. Throw down the gauntlet by insisting that even they would be incapable of finding a solution to this problem. “You’re right. It is hopeless. In fact, not even you could find a way to solve this problem.”
And that’s when you get the polarity response. Because the only way a negative person can stay negative to a person agreeing with them is to go positive. Don’t be surprised to see your No Person go in the opposite direction, telling you that it can be done and how to do it.
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