Why Winning Doesn’t Always Mean Victory When Handling Objections
The 28th April 2010. With only a week to go before the UK General Election, it was precisely the kind of publicity the Labour Party didn’t need. Following a fractious encounter with a voter called Gillian Duffy, the Prime Minister Gordon Brown, was unwittingly recorded on a Sky News microphone calling her a “bigoted woman.” ‘Bigotgate’ was born.
Encircled by the press, his political record and personal reputation under fire, Brown’s discomfort and impatience during the exchange was palpable as he tried to get the better of Duffy. The result was the antithesis of the image he was trying to project – the in-touch, empathetic politician.
Rather than listening to her concerns, his entire focus was on proving that he was right by overpowering and discrediting her.
When she raised her concerns about immigration, his self-satisfied smirk said it all. She’d been exposed as a bigot and any right-minded person watching the exchange would see that he was right. In Brown’s mind he had won.
The desire to win is, I’m sure, something we’ve all experienced. In a work setting it’s comforting to believe that we can cut out the emotion and remain logical when faced with a challenging situation. The problem is, we’re not wired that way. The human brain always has an emotional reaction before a logical one, so if somebody pushes the wrong buttons, remaining rational can be difficult.
Imagine that you’ve just finished presenting your big idea. It’s taken weeks of hard work and stress to pull it together and you’re incredibly proud of it. You believe passionately that it’s going to make a difference and you’re convinced your audience will agree.
Then someone raises an objection and trashes it in front of the whole room.
You might feel offended, humiliated, outraged. When someone raises an objection about something you’re invested in, it can feel very personal. It can be hard not to see them as an enemy and launch a counter attack, but engaging with them in this way can have negative consequences. As Gordon Brown discovered in the fall out from ‘Bigotgate,’ he may have won the initial battle but he ultimately lost the war.
Disregarding the person making an objection is a dangerous game to play. How do you know that their objection isn’t valid? How can you be sure that their views aren’t shared by the other people in the room? It may be that the rest of your audience believe that objection is absolutely correct.
And even when the audience does share your view, if you deal with the objector disrespectfully, it can harm your reputation in the eyes of those watching.
By dismissing Gillian Duffy as a bigoted woman, Gordon Brown not only trivialised the views of millions of other UK voters who shared her concerns, but his behaviour also alienated some of those who might have agreed with him.
So, when dealing with an objection, moving from combat towards collaboration is essential.
The first step in doing this is to stop speaking. Think W.A.I.T. which stands for Why Am I Talking?
Ideally you want to aim for an 80-20 split – try to get the other person speaking for 80% of the time, you only 20%. This can be incredibly difficult – particularly if your emotions are running high – as it means putting your agenda to one side, but it allows you to understand the problem and gives you valuable thinking time.
Objections can be like icebergs and there may be much more to them than meets the eye. So, it’s important to ask short, open questions to really unpack what is going on. T.E.D. questions are really effective when doing this – “Tell me more…” “Explain why…” “Describe how…”
And running through this, like the writing through a stick of rock, is empathy. Make the person objecting feel like you genuinely want to understand their concerns. If they feel heard and understood, you’ll have a much better chance of proposing a solution that could win their support.
The irony of ‘Bigotgate’ was that Gillian Duffy wasn’t aware that her objections might be seen as unreasonable. She was genuinely shocked and upset when she heard Brown’s comments. As a life-long Labour supporter, it could be argued that she was actually seeking reassurance from Brown and might even have been won around to his way of thinking.
Gordon Brown ended that day by making a humiliating personal apology to Gillian Duffy at her home. “I am a penitent sinner,” he said to the press gathered outside. “Sometimes you say things you don’t mean to say, sometimes you say things by mistake and sometimes you say things you want to correct very quickly.”
Whilst it may not have directly influenced the outcome of the election – which the Labour Party eventually lost – ‘Bigotgate’ certainly damaged Brown’s personal reputation. Had he taken the time to listen, empathise and understand Gillian Duffy’s point of view instead of seeing her as the enemy, how different the outcome might have been.