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How to Convert a Cynic: Assume positive intent

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As a facilitator, I can spot a cynic a mile away. Their body language is pure resistance: folded arms, suspicious expression, and deep sighs. They don’t need to say anything to identify themselves (although they usually do…) because their energy says most of it for them.

It’s easy to be frustrated by these people – negative, shooting down people’s ideas and generally throwing a spanner in the works. Worse, it’s even tempting to argue with them.

Why do they have to be so resistant to change? Why are they such a pain in the a*s? Why can’t they play the game like everyone else?

Here’s why: because they represent something important. Either they’re expressing things that other people are thinking but not saying, or they can spot a problem that others don’t.

Almost without exception, your cynics are worth converting. As I wrote in this article last week: anger beats apathy every time. When people care enough to be grumpy, they’re worth spending the time on.

When I train people to lead strategic conversations, I often have them complete a design-thinking empathy map for their cynics before they walk into a room (download yours free here). Digging a bit deeper doesn't take long, but it can make all the difference between getting frustrated, and understanding.

For some leaders, or facilitators, dealing with cynics is a chore. In the same way that traditional parenting encouraged us to ignore or punish bad behaviour, lest we ‘reward’ our children for needing help, traditional leadership was all about shutting down, removing or punishing cynicism. This might send it underground, but it won't remove it.

Positive parenting is all about taking the time to understand our children’s unmet needs, (so that they can learn to understand them too!). It took me a while to deprogram my instinctive response to shut my girls down when they acted out, because I certainly wasn’t raised that way. But once I managed it, and my children began to trust that my love and support wasn’t conditional, the difference was extraordinary.

The same is true of good facilitation, and good leadership. Not because we should think of our people like children (although, as Russell Brand once said, we’re all babies...) but because when people are being difficult, it’s usually for a good reason. If we take the time to figure that out, by moving past what we see on the outside, we find the good stuff. There’s no such thing as a single crime, so if someone is expressing cynicism or mistrust, you can be sure that exists quietly in other corners too.

Maybe this is the seventh one of these they've suffered through.
Maybe they've seen something similar fail.
Maybe they're afraid of what this will mean for their job.
Maybe they're worried how it will look to their boss, or an important client.
Maybe they're more switched on than you realise.

I like to operate on the assumption of positive intent - most people come to work to do a good job, and try their best. If they're being difficult, it's probably for a good reason*. I reckon this is true in most situations - friends, colleagues, and people overall.

And hey - maybe I'm wrong. Maybe they're not worried about something important, or seeing something you're not. But if you don't take the time to understand where they're coming from, you're asking for trouble. And if you do, you might be surprised. When you convert a cynic, they often become your biggest champion.

So, what's going on with your cynics?
What if you assumed positive intent?


Til next week
- A