Dear Crucial Skills,
It’s one thing to tell a person you disagree with them or give them feedback about a situation, but how do you do this with a group? I am in a situation where everyone seems to be heading in the wrong direction. I disagree with their thinking and their actions, but it appears I’m the only one. What can I do?
Group think can be hard to battle. Decisions made en masse have a lot of momentum—if not staying power. But just because everyone may appear to think the same, doesn’t mean their thinking is right. So, how do you speak up if you’re the only one who disagrees? Our research shows that many people avoid saying anything when in your shoes.
Several years ago, we polled 600 employees and found that 90% said they know far in advance when projects are doomed, but they feel incapable of speaking up. Eighty-two percent said there were significant organization-wide initiatives underway in their workplace that would likely fail, and 78% said they were personally working on a “doomed” project.
Despite this pervasive concern about project success, only 10% felt they could effectively speak up about the “slow motion train wrecks” happening before their eyes. More than 71% said they tried to speak up to key decision-makers but didn’t feel heard, and 19% didn’t even attempt to have the conversation.
Why do we struggle to speak up in these moments? It’s because the conversation has turned from casual to crucial.
When conversations are crucial—when there are high stakes, opposing opinions, and strong emotions—we often go to silence because we expect the conversation will go poorly. Our survey respondents said they worried speaking up might damage their credibility or reputation. They also worried that decision-makers might get angry or defensive.
When you’re the lone dissenter on a group decision, you are facing a Crucial Conversation. And the skills you need for this conversation are no different than those you use when addressing a single individual. When you know how to handle Crucial Conversations, you can engage in a candid and respectful conversation with one or many, and maybe even influence decisions and change outcomes. Let’s discuss a few ideas for disagreeing with a group.
Consider the Risks
Any time you’re unsure whether you should speak up, consider the risks. But not the risks of speaking up, rather the risks of not speaking up. If you’re confident the group’s position isn’t right or needs more consideration, then speak up. If you believe staying silent will lead to project failure, for example, speak up. If you bite your tongue today, no amount of righteous indignation will salvage the sting of a team failure tomorrow.
Lead with Facts
Don’t start a risky conversation with vague conclusions, judgments, or accusations. For example, don’t begin with, “This decision is a terrible idea. Don’t you remember what happened last time we outsourced the production work to Acme Corp.?” While this statement might be true, it lacks the evidence that supports your belief. Conclusions are often inflammatory and provoke defensiveness. You’ll have far more success in raising a flag if you start by laying out the factual basis of your concerns before sharing the riskier conclusions.
For example, “We selected Acme Corp. as our contractor two years ago. Several of you were not around then, but I was, and there were some major issues with the partnership. While their bid was the cheapest, we ended up spending what we saved because we had to bring in outside contractors to fix quality issues introduced by Acme. They also came in two months behind schedule.”
Sharing data is less controversial, and it helps the group see your concern more clearly. If you have the facts in hand, you can take the emotion out of the conversation. You’re simply shedding light on information the group should be aware of.
Your group will be much more receptive to your concerns if they understand that you care about what they care about and aren’t simply pushing an agenda or being difficult. Make it clear you’re sensitive to the group’s work and efforts to arrive at the position they have. This creates an atmosphere of safety, diffuses defensiveness, and sets the stage for a more favorable response.
“I know a lot of work went into the contract proposal. I understand that we received bids from several respected agencies, and I know that my concerns about Acme might seem skewed given their proposal. But I feel it’s important to share perspective that may change your opinion.”
Express Mutual Purpose
Once you have made it safe for others to hear your concerns, share your mutual purpose.
“My goal is not to set the work back or force the team to start over. I know we have a tight deadline, and I want to keep to that as well. But that is also why I’m speaking up, because I’m concerned that if we work with Acme, we won’t meet our deadlines.”
Once you’ve tentatively shared your facts and mutual purpose, ask others how they see it. Invite their perspective. In the process, you might learn something about their own decision-making that could change your opinion or how you see things. You might even discover that others have similar feelings they’ve been reluctant to express—just as our study showed.
“Could we spend some time discussing this new information to make sure we’re really comfortable with the decision to choose Acme? I’d like to hear your perspective on what I’ve shared.”
These skills can help you speak up—even when you feel outnumbered. Maybe all you need to gain a little momentum of your own is to start the Crucial Conversation. Don’t be afraid to speak up, you could be responsible for saving a project, changing outcomes, or even changing lives.
Best of luck,
5 thoughts on “How to Hold a Crucial Conversation with a Group”
As usual, this is important wisdom from Crucial, including the general approach and the tactics. For me to speak up here (not with a disagreement but an addition), I want to focus what I believe is implied: I want both my tone and content to express “we” — that “I’m in this with you.” I hope to make sure it does not come across in my face or voice as, “You people are making a big mistake!”
This article gave me flashbacks to a truly awful project I was on at a good company. Unfortunately before I had Crucial Conversations.
I could not pull anyone away from the idea that I was trying to cover my own behind from failure. Just the opposite, my team did an amazing job and delivered everything we were supposed to, but the project was such a disaster of planning that it would never get used…and I could see it early on. I think a lot of people saw it early on.
There was apparently a higher up who drove the idea and I could never figure out who they were. I was dealing with a series of intimidated underlings and could never make headway.
The good/bad news is the project was delivered as designed and not too over budget or time. My management “celebrated” the successful launch. Exactly as predicted, it was used for less than a month because it brought no value and a lot of overhead to the existing procedures.
Great article and reminder on how to share when you’re the only one. I’ve been on the other side of this a few times – leading efforts with a group and having one (or two) hold-outs who do not agree on a direction. I would love to hear from the Crucial Conversation experts on moving past a crucial conversation where agreement could not be reached but the group moved forward anyway. As someone leading the project and hearing these concerns, I believe we did a good job of creating space to hear others: they felt safe in expressing their opposition. We took time to explore alternative options with their buy-in and review for “what else.” We responded to their concerns with sharing more details about future needs that would be supported through this effort. After all of that, the project leaders took time to revisit our assumptions and scope of our project. We came to the conclusion that their feedback and our adjustments do not lend to a “perfect” solution (all agreed). However, now is the time and effort would still be required to support the less-than-perfect approach we landed on. Consensus was not reached and that is unusual in my organization; it is uncomfortable. I am curious how much time needs to be spent working through that unusual outcome, or if that just adds fuel. I am also concerned they have checked out. We’d like to move forward and would prefer to do so with their support.
I am grateful for many things I have learned from Crucial Learning over the years. I want to share that a few months ago we, as volunteers, had the opportunity to comment on a change the organization wanted to make. We were to email them our ideas. I have been with this organization for nine years and this was the first time we had been asked to do this. I sent the leaders a short note that was respectful and kind. I only shared two reasons I felt the change wasn’t in the best interest of the volunteers nor the guests that we help every day. I was pleasantly surprised that they listened to my ideas and instead of making the change they had planned, made a change to make things even more open and comfortable for us and our guests. Also, after sharing my ideas I was still treated with respect and kindness. Thanks for all you have taught me. I will keep working on what I learn from you.