No is the beginning of commitment

Best of 2014, first published on June 16, 2014
Given the recent conversations conducted in offices, hallways, restrooms, boardrooms, classrooms and the media around reactions to Charting the Future, I thought this blog was particularly relevant. It helps remind me that dissent conversations can help us get to a better result and is actually needed to build accountability and commitment for any change effort.
–Anita Rios

“…if we cannot say no, then our yes has no meaning.” – Peter Block

block2In his book, Community: The Structure of Belonging, Peter Block helps leaders understand how to build accountability and commitment for transforming our organizations and communities through six important conversations with stakeholders. One of those conversations focuses on dissent, which can seem counter-intuitive in our American culture. Dissent can be perceived as being disloyal or negative. And those who voice dissent can be branded as someone who is not a team player.

However, Block makes a good point that each of us needs the chance to express our doubts and reservations when we are part of a large collective effort to transform an organization. And he aptly points out: “creating space for dissent is the way diversity gets valued in the world.” It is the role of leaders to allow space for people to say no.

In working with leaders over the years, I’ve observed that many find it scary to allow space for dissent. It can feel messy. Leaders may also worry that allowing for dissent can send the organization’s members into a negative spiral. That’s where it is helpful to construct questions and facilitated conversations that allow for stakeholders to voice their doubts. Block suggests some of the following questions:

  • What doubts and reservations do you have?
  • What is the no, or refusal, that you keep postponing?
  • What have you said yes to, that you no longer really mean?
  • What is a commitment or decision that you have changed your mind about?
  • What resentment do you hold that no one knows about?

Allowing organizational members and stakeholders space to express their doubts and reservations can be powerful, especially as a leader listens deeply and with curiosity. Block also states that “the key for the leader is not to take the dissent personally or to argue in any way with the doubts that get expressed.” If a concern can be addressed, a leader should do that. If it is too complex to be addressed, which many doubts are, it is enough for a leader to just listen.

Allowing public space for dissent takes those conversations out of the hallway and restrooms and makes it safe for people to say no, so that when they move on to conversations about possibilities, their yes has true meaning and builds commitment towards a shared and desired future.

Anita Rios


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