How to Handle and Overcome Objections to Your Proposal at Work

During the life journey, we make many proposals to create a place for ourselves in the communities. Our recommendations can be as simple as deciding which spacing style we should use (tabs or spaces) in a project or writing an RFC to propose a change in the organization. We want decisions in favor of our proposals. It sometimes happens, sometimes not. Whenever we make a suggestion, there is often someone against it. The objection can be a simple concern, or the person may be trying to push their proposals. In any way, our minds start giving threat signals because our place in the community begins to be in jeopardy. How can we defend ourselves to weld our position in society, especially at work? How can we unwire this threat signal and understand if the objection is valid or not in the first place?

Let's take a step back and understand how is the environment we are in and if our proposal can be open for objections. This step will help us to defend our argument.

Decision-Making Methods

Depending on the organization's culture and structure, people use different decision-making methods that influence proposals. If we are in a command-based environment such as the military, there won't be any place for objections. Whoever is higher in the hierarchy will have the decision regardless of objections. Of course, we are not interested in a command-based environment (unless we're a horrible boss) because objections have no place. In software organizations, we use other styles such as advice, consent, and consensus, which are often all together. On some occasions, we go with the consensus and try to convince as many people as possible. In other situations, we prefer advice-based decisions: propose and ask for advice but keep the right to reject whatever you find unreasonable. Usually, there is no one-style-to-rule-them-all. We adjust our style according to the circumstances.

The image shows a decision making methods on a scale. On the left most, we have command decision making (we're not interested in this unless we are a horrible boss). When we're going to the right, we see advice. And a little bit more right, we have consent. On the right most we have consensus.
Decision Making Methods

Handling Objections

After identifying how we make the decision, we can start thinking about our approach to objection. If we are looking for advice on our decision, it will be easier to accept/reject objections. We can adjust the decision after receiving advice or leave it as it is. When we start moving to the consensus side, it starts getting complicated to turn down every comment. Everyone wants their opinion accepted in the organization, so convincing everyone to align with our proposal is troublesome. In these complex environments, the major problem is caused by framing the feedback question incorrectly.

We ask questions like "Are there any objections?" or "What do you think about the proposal, any concerns?". Although these are good questions, there is an absence of precision. If our question is vague, the answers will be obscure. Validate and considering them will be intricate and demanding. There are a couple of specific difficulties we can focus on to improve the question.

The first one is the flexibility of the decision itself. If we think of the decision as unalterable, we will be afraid to deal with objections and close ourselves to precious feedback. Instead, if we consider the decision as "safe to try," it becomes risk-friendly, and we nudge everyone to be more flexible. It also fastens the decision-making process. When decisions are set in stone, our brains want to eliminate all possible risks, the process takes longer, and we get slower. Another benefit of safe to try proposals is that they focus on now, not in the future. The future is uncertain; no one knows what will happen.

The second point is creating room for others' opinions. Everyone wants acceptance and that the community hears their thoughts. Of course, we don't want to listen to every argument. That's why we require a piece of evidence -this is also our third vagueness in the questions above. We need objections based on evidence. If someone is rejecting the proposal only with feelings, there won't be space for any discussion.

With all this, we can transform our question from "Are there any objections?" to "Does anyone have any evidence why trying this proposal would cause immediate harm? If so, could you please recommend an edit that will make the proposal safe to try?" The well-defined question helps the audience to have structural thinking. Instead of immediately objecting to the proposal, they start looking for evidence that shows why trying out the suggestion can cause immediate harm, now, not in the future. Even if they find it, they have to recommend an edit. This process encourages them to be part of the proposal. Once the audience comes up with objections, we still need to validate them. The question is only the first part of the equation.

Overcoming Objections

We need to be sure if they answer the question above entirely, recommend an edit, not inject a novel idea. We can validate the objection by asking three questions in order. If one of the validation steps fails, congrats; we found an invalid objection.

In the image, there is a decision tree to validate objections for our proposals. In the first step, we ask the question "Are you objecting because you have a better idea?" If the answer is "Yes", the objection becomes invalid. If the answer is "No", we go to the next question which is "Is the problem you foresee a future problem or now problem?" If the answer is "Future", the objection is invalid. If the answer is "Now", we go to the next question which is "Will that 'Now Problem' be easy to recover from?". If the answer is "Yes", the objection is invalid. If the answer is "No", we reach to a valid objection.
Three Questions to validate objections

Let's go one by one. In the first step, we identify the reason for the objection. Does the dissenter object because they want their proposal to be accepted? If they come with a better idea, they are not objecting; they are discarding the proposal. This situation moves us backward and starts discussions from the top. So when the answer is "Yes, it's another idea," the objection becomes invalid. When the answer is "No," we go to the second validation question.

The second step focuses on problems at that exact moment. We often want to be protective about tomorrow and make it as predictable as possible. However, the future will always be uncertain, and we can't foresee every problem. Therefore, we focus on issues we can deal with at the moment. If the dissenter raises a problem that we didn't consider in the proposal, the objection passes the second validation point.

In the third step, we consider the risks and focus on being safe to try -the topic we talked about before. The objection should raise the concern that it's not easy to recover, so that we have to go back to the proposal and consider this unforeseen problem. If the dissenter brings up a problem that we can quickly recover, we can still try the proposal.

When the objection passes all three questions, it becomes a valid objection. Now, we can focus on and discuss the edit they will make in the proposal. If they are objecting, they should recommend a solution to a present problem and makes the proposal safe to try.

The whole process might seem complicated and impractical at first. But this is a practice we can apply at work when we need it. Without these kinds of techniques, we find ourselves in endless discussions; we slow down and even lose all motivation and energy on the way. After trying this method a couple of times, we learn and form a habit of filtering objections automatically. We move faster, make decisions that are safe to try, adequately see the critical problems and prioritize solutions better. We understand and trust each other better and prevent future conflicts. As we involve more people in proposals, we can communicate our decisions easily without having endless discussions.


August's Playbook: From Is it Right? to Is it Safe to Try?

Medium May 16, 2021
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