How To Win Over An Intelligent Person
10 years ago

When you’re up to big things, running an organization, committed to a big outcome, you often need to get agreement with other influential people and those influential people are usually intelligent. That’s how they became influential. And, chances are they have a slightly different worldview than you do.

Sometimes that different worldview causes them not to agree with you and sometimes that lack of agreement, particularly if it’s an influential person in the organization or in the ecosystem with which you’re trying to operate, will prevent you from creating your outcome.

I just got out of a meeting at a top technical organization where one of the executive vice presidents was frustrated that he couldn’t get the CEO to agree with an organizational change that he felt necessary in order for the strategic plans of the company to be successful.

The vice president had socialized his ideas with his peers, had done the research and had collaboratively come up with what he thought was an elegant solution to an execution problem that the organization repeatedly faced.

He took it to the CEO and the CEO didn’t agree with his solution at all, and instead recommended a solution which was a slightly different version of what was already happening, leaving the VP with the feeling that they were just going to repeat the same negative result in the future and not solve the problem.

So where did he go wrong? He got the buy-in from his peers and he presented an intelligent solution. What went wrong is that he started at the end of the process.

When you are trying to gain agreement, you actually need agreement about three things.

1. Agreement about what the problem is
2. Agreement around what the boundaries or conditions are
3. Agreement about the solution

At the end, the final agreement you need is an agreement about the solution.  Prior to that you need an agreement around what the boundaries or conditions are and prior to that you need agreement about what the problem is.

1. Agreement about what the problem is

Most meetings are made up of people voicing different opinions about the problem that they’re trying to solve by explaining different solutions.
So, if you listen to just the content of the conversation, you’ll observe disagreement about the solution. “I think that we should take this approach.” “No, that doesn’t seem like it’ll work.” “I think we should take this other approach”, and so forth and so on; however, what you’ll realize when you get underneath the assumptions that are driving each of the executives in that conversation, is they’re actually trying to solve slightly different problems and they haven’t stopped first to agree on the problem.

It’s crucially important if you have a dicey situation with influential people that are intelligent and have very different worldviews that you separate these three phases and start by merely agreeing on the problem.

“I’ve observed this negative effect.”  “I think it’s a problem and I think that we need to have a solution.”  “Have you observed the same negative effect?” And get agreement about the problem. “I think that we should solve this problem.”  “I think the scope of the problem is defined this way and the impact of the problem is defined that way and that we should look for a solution that alleviates that problem.”

2. Agreement about the boundaries or conditions

Once you have an agreement about the problem, then you can begin to have a discussion about the boundaries or the conditions. “If we’re looking for a solution, it’s got to fit the following criteria. It must fit within X effort, within Y budget. It’s got to be executable by these people. It must not increase the risk of this kind or that kind beyond this threshold”, and you start to describe what the boundaries are of the possible solutions that would affect the problem.

If you start to speak about possible solutions or present an idea for what might solve the problem, you’re immediately going to find yourself in an unwinnable debate with someone who disagrees with you and has a lot of resources and influence. But, if you simply get agreement on the boundaries or the conditions, you’ll find that you can sum their conditions and your conditions to come up with a complete list of conditions that both of you agree on.

3. Agreement about the solution

Then once you have the problem that you’ve agreed to solve and the conditions that you’ve agreed upon, then it’s simply a creativity problem to come up with a solution that will meet the criteria, that will meet that condition. After getting those first two agreements, it’s quite easy to get agreement on the third because you’re no longer dealing with the differences in worldview.

You’ve worked out the differences in worldview in the second stage. You’ve worked out the emphasis of the problem and it’s importance in the first stage and now you’re only agreeing on whether or not the projected or proposed solution meets the criteria or not, which is a much less emotional, much more logical conversation; a conversation where any two intelligent people will find it much easier to agree.

One final caveat:  Of course, simply using this process won’t guarantee that every intelligent person will always agree with you; however, you’ll find out where the essence of the disagreement really is. Is it that you don’t agree that it’s a problem we’re solving or is it that you don’t agree what the constraints are, or is it you don’t believe that the solution that’s recommended is truly a fit. Without that clarity, you’ll always be arguing about the solution and never get to the core root of the actual disagreement.

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