How to Break Through Resistance in Meetings

Dealing effectively with objections can be a problem for meeting leaders. 

As the facilitator, you ask a participant if they agree with the group’s decision and they say, “No.”  Where do you go from there?

Researchers who studied how to break down resistance found that one method consistently outperformed alternatives[1].  When you get, “No” the solution they found that works best is for you to ask, “Why not?”  Here is what they mean.

The key is transforming the “No” from a flat refusal into an identification of the specific obstacle that is in the way.  If you can deal with the obstacle, the research suggests, your request is more likely to be granted.

We don’t know from this research why the technique works so well, but the researchers wonder if it’s because of persistence.  Repeated requests give the impression of urgency and this may better turn on people’s guilt and/or sympathy.

From my experience as a mediator, I can also see that pursuing “Why not?” questioning also uses the communication skill of ‘fractionalizing’.  Instead of accepting a categorical, “No”, answering a “Why not?” question breaks down and makes specific the precise obstacles.  Removing the obstacles creates a pathway to an agreement.  It fractionalizes or breaks apart a complete rejection into smaller parts that can be easier to deal with.

Human behavior may also play a role.  We try to avoid inconsistencies in our thinking which cause us mental stress.  It feels dissonant to not comply after objections have been effectively dealt with; after all, if there’s no reason not to do it, why not do it?

The only downside of the “Why not?” technique is that it requires the capacity for creative thought and quick understanding to find ways to dispel objections.  Still, anticipating objections is a standard part of meeting leadership so many of these can be anticipated.

It might feel cheeky to keep asking, “Why not” when people refuse, but this research suggests it can be a powerful way to encourage agreement.  You just need to figure out diplomatic ways to keep asking,  “Why not?”

So, if this advice for breaking down resistance feels a little weird and you are reluctant to try, let me end by asking, “Why not?”

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[1] Franklin J. Boster, Allison S. Shaw, Mikayla Hughes, Michael R. Kotowski, Renee E. Strom & Leslie M. Deatrick (2009) Dump-and-Chase: The Effectiveness of Persistence as a Sequential Request Compliance-Gaining Strategy, Communication Studies, 60:3, 219-234, DOI: 10.1080/10510970902955976.

© 2022, Michael E. Fraidenburg. All rights reserved.