(Editor’s Note: The following advice is from a Femgineer 4 April 2014 blog. The original, (plus other Femgineer Freebies), is available at http://femgineer.com/2014/04/learn-to-dissent/)

At my first job one of the things I absolutely hated doing was sitting in on meetings.  It took away precious minutes and hours that I could have been coding or making progress on a project.  The main reason I hated these meetings is because I felt that they would end up in stalemates.  There were too many people involved who just couldn’t agree on anything.  And because nothing was resolved in the meeting, we would end up scheduling another meeting!  Needless to say it made it hard to ship things on time and innovate. As I grew increasingly frustrated with this process, I decided it was time to try a different approach.

Every group has the following dynamics: there is usually one leader, a large set of followers, a set of dissenters (usually less than a handful of people), and some set of flip floppers (depending on the issue).  As the old adage goes you cannot please everyone.  So here’s the strategy I’ve come up with that has worked pretty well.

I focus purely on the dissenters.  Instead of calling a meeting with everyone, I will meet with each dissenter individually to hear their concerns.  During this 1-1 I just listen to their concerns and try to understand why they are dissenting.  I don’t try to persuade them on anything, but do a deep dive into the problems they are experiencing to understand the underlying causes of their dissension.  Once I’m done listening, I take a day to think if their concerns can be addressed, and if they cannot then I go back to the dissenter, once again 1-1, and explain to them the ways in which I’ve tried to come up with a solution but haven’t been able to.  If they have a better solution I’m willing to hear them out, but the key is to re-emphasize the goal of the organization, and the constraints so they also understand what I’m dealing with.

Taking this approach has done a couple things for me:

  1. People who may have been dissenting to be difficult stop, and instead start to be a little empathetic, because they see that I genuinely care about creating alignment in the organization, and addressing people’s concerns.
  2. Empower dissenters to stop squawking and start looking for solutions. Too often people feel like they cannot enact change, which is why they only complain.  By approaching them and requesting them to help me come up with a solution they know they are heard and have a degree of influence and freedom to change the current situation.

The keys to making this work are:

  1. Meeting dissenters individually.  If you meet up in a group you’ll get ganged up on!  I know it’s time consuming, but I can assure you that your minority voice will get squashed if you try to bring the group together.
  2. Setting no expectations.  All you want is to hear someone out and understand where they are coming from so that you can explore solutions.  No guarantees of outcomes should be made.
  3. Pull them out of the typical context.  Have the 1-1 away from the office.  Preferably on a walk or in a quiet coffee shop corner.
  4. Do not ambush!  Let them know why you want to meet, and what you’d like to accomplish.  Don’t just take them out to coffee and hit them from left field, they’ll feel preyed upon and antagonize you more at the next meeting!

Think about my approach of creating alignment, and try it out.  I cannot guarantee that it will work like a charm the first time you try it, so do it a few times.  If you get reprimanded for trying to create alignment then you’re probably working for the wrong organization altogether.

(Editor’s Note: Poornima asks “Have you had to deal with dissenters? What has your approach been? I’d like to learn for you, so please let me know in the comments below!”

You can respond at  http://femgineer.com/2014/04/learn-to-dissent/)