Chris St. Hilaire: How to disarm your critics without getting into a debate

Chris St. Hilaire

Chris St. Hilaire, Founder, President and CEO, Jury Impact and M4 Strategies

With any business idea, there will be people who are with you, people who are against you and some who are undecided. Sometimes the people against you will forcefully attack you or your position. In those cases, the best response is often to give the opposition nothing to oppose. It’s the same principle that some Eastern martial arts techniques, such as aikido, are based on.

Managing opposition by giving it nothing to oppose simply means prevailing by not fighting back. The strategy plays out in different ways depending on the situation. If it’s just you and one other person having an argument, the natural tendency is to respond to every attack.

Next time, instead of responding and defending yourself, just nod as if you see the other person’s point and then let it sit. Give it a few minutes. In my experience, 90 percent of the time, the other person will moderate his or her own position and come more toward yours. All things tend toward balance and people innately know when they’ve crossed the line.

In group situations, a similar approach is possible. In the past, I’ve advised readers not to respond to a big ego that is trying to dominate the room. If you perceive that person as petty and insecure, chances are everyone else does too.

In the same way, if someone launches an attack on your idea in a group setting, often you can sit back and not respond at all while the person’s words hang in the air and the rest of the group comes to their own conclusions. Then you can go back to the original goal without making a value judgment about the person.

If ignoring a challenge doesn’t end the opposition, you can manage it by redirecting the energy. In those cases, the most effective move is acknowledging his or her point of view because that gives the person’s opposition nowhere further to go. Once the kneejerk opposition subsides, you can come back and approach the topic from a different angle. Don’t capitulate your position, but know that there is usually more than one way to get where you want to go.

In any debate, arguments can turn into sub-arguments that have little effect on the overall outcome. Without losing any important ground you can say, “I see your point,” and leave it at that. Or you can rephrase the other person’s point and ask, “So is that what you’re saying?” The other person will respond, “That’s right.” You can then say, “Well, that’s interesting,” and now the opposition is thwarted without a confrontation.

Managing opposition when you are not part of the argument calls for a different approach. If everyone is in an equal position of power, what often happens is that when someone makes a suggestion and another person opposes it, the first person will immediately dig in his or her heels. If you’re witnessing this, it’s a good opportunity to remind everyone of the goal — “Why are we here today?”

In group situations where there is a clear superior, strong leaders will sometimes allow heated arguments to take place, trusting that the group will resolve the problem on its own. Experienced CEOs know that if they immediately step in, they may stifle creativity by imposing their will.  Instead, they’re patient and allow the room to work things through.

The best CEOs seem to know intuitively when to sit back and when to guide the debate. When the group finally makes a decision, they’ll just say, “I think that’s a great idea. Let’s do it.” They won’t take credit for it because now the group owns the idea.

Whether you are among equals or in the leadership role, the main concept to remember about opposition is that there’s no use in swimming against the current because you won’t get anywhere. Instead, you’ve got to swim with the current and redirect it. To do that, you’re letting silence work for you. You’re finding common ground with your opponent. And you’re always going back to the goal that the group is trying to accomplish together.

Chris St. Hilaire is the author (with Lynette Padwa) of “27 Powers of Persuasion: Simple Strategies to Seduce Audiences and Win Allies” (Prentice Hall Press). He is an award-winning message strategist who has developed communications programs for some of the nation’s most powerful corporations, legal teams and politicians.