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ATD Blog

What Do You Do when You Meet the Unengageable?


Tue Feb 05 2013


As a motivated, successful and positive individual, it is all too easy to filter out the reality that not everyone is like you. Of course, everyone should be, shouldn't they? Totally bought into your idea, swelled and inspired by your enthusiasm, swept along with the change contagion. Yet as a fellow reader of the ASTD, I know you know better than that.

Many people out there you have to engage with are cautious (if not suspicious), worried, objectionable or simply not interested in your latest change project. Engaging with them requires a different approach, which may take you out of your comfort zone and could even challenge your integrity.


But knowing this is one thing, doing it is quite another matter. Here are a few ideas to develop your practice...

  • Check Your Attitude. Allow for the fact that it is okay for people not to want to engage with you, at least initially. Of course, if they knew what you know, how could they resist? But they don't know what you know. The attitude you carry with you into meetings can push people further away.

  • Check Your Behavior. The thing I love about enthusiastic people is that they show it in everything they do. Bouncing around and jumping up and down with excitement is highly likely to make the reluctant want to pack a bag and take a vacation. Match and move, match and move.

  • Listen. No, no, not listening and filtering out the problem. The reticular activating system is great at deluding you into thinking they are engaging when they are not. Instead, listen acutely and actively to their reservations and hear why they are resistant.

  • Understand. Covey has left a great legacy, and here it is important that you go beyond understanding their position regarding what you want them to engage with ― understand their whole context. Many other pressures are coming from elsewhere, and until you can understand your requests in their context you will likely miss opportunities to secure engagement.

  • Give Context. Always make sure to articulate the reason why. How does your project fit into the bigger picture? That the board has signed it off is usually rather ineffective in motivating people to engage. Contextualizing into the overall organizational purpose and mission is much more likely to get the job done.

  • Tailor Your Pitch. If not to individuals, at least to communities. Relate your proposals to their world, in their language and how it will benefit them. Time to go back to that sales book — just because you are selling an idea it doesn’t mean all those great theories about effective selling will not work here — they probably will.

  • Recognize Drawbacks. If you tell them everything will be great for them, they won't believe you. They'll likely think that you think they were born yesterday. So, be open and honest — yes, it will take a lot of their hard work to make this change, but it will demonstrate that you understand their position.

  • Walk Away. Careful with this one. At a conference last year, Marshall Goldsmith really struck home with the notion that organizations need to consider limiting their engagement effort — there comes a time when the other side has to do some engaging. The more you try, the harder they may let you try!

And yes, I know all of this will take time, and that's something you don't have much of, so you'll need to prioritize and focus on the most important people. When you do so, it is possible to motivate, induce, influence and engage the unengageable — and the benefits of engagement are well understood.

So, next time you try to engage the unengageable, what are you going to do?

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