On Inducing The Recalcitrant

In most PM interviews I've gone into, I've been asked some variant of a question that goes something like this:

"Describe a time that you faced opposition to a project or idea from senior management at your company. How did you overcome that challenge?"

In some variants, the senior management is simply your boss, and in some variants the question is simply to "describe a time that somebody disagreed with you", but the essence of the question is always similar: how do you sell an idea to someone who doesn't buy it?

It's not just a valid question to ask a PM candidate, it's a great one: it illuminates their navigation of interpersonal relationships, it can shed light on how adept they are at negotiation and persuasion, and it's a good way to reveal what a candidate thinks about themselves. Are they confident, or are they arrogant? Are they logical, or are they emotional?

It's also a very difficult question to answer. I think that every time I've answered it, I've employed with some kind of an anecdote... and as long as I'm being honest, I think every time I've tried to answer it I've more or less failed to say anything particularly compelling.

So how should one answer this question? How does one sell an idea to to a recalcitrant audience? Here are five tips:

First: Never turn the situation into a me-vs-you. Selling an idea to someone who has already made up their mind against it is already tricky. Selling the same idea to the same person who now feels that buying said idea constitutes a concession is even trickier.

Avoiding me-vs-you situations is a delicate dance. I've found that the best way to do this is to look for ways to include contributions from your audience whenever possible. An idea that's 80% yours and 20% theirs belongs to both of you, and it's hard for someone to feel adversarial against their own ideas.

Second: Walk the decision-maker through how you came to your conclusion. More than likely, you've spent days or weeks coming up with your proposal. You've seen all the data, read all the facts, and studied the options well enough to feel confident presenting it. But part of the reason that you feel so confident is because you have all the context you need—without that context, your argument is certainly less compelling. Oftentimes, explaining your methodology, the path you took, and the things you considered is a good way to sway naysayers over to your side.

Third: Listen. In truth, this probably ought to be the first suggestion, because much of the time it's the most important thing you can do. What is it that your audience is disagreeing with? Why do they believe what they believe? Put yourself in their shoes, and then put your own shoes back on. Are you really sure that your suggestion is the correct route forward? Think of your audience's objections one-by-one—let them know that you hear exactly what their concerns are, address those concerns, and then evaluate if you are still in the right.

Fourth: Identify unknowns—collaboratively. If you haven't been able to reach a conclusion after reviewing all the facts both for and against your position, then there is a good chance that you and your audience are evaluating unknowns differently. What other facts need to be revealed before a decision can be made? Work with the other person to come up with a plan of action for gathering more information, and then commit to reconvening after that.

And finally: Remember that your goal is not to convince your audience. It's for your audience to become convinced. Ask yourself who is in the best position to be truly heard and considered: would somebody else be able to better persuade your audience? Look for other people your target respects—their manager, their teammates, maybe their friends. If you can build institutional support in the environment around your target, they may find themselves coming around to your viewpoint.


Perhaps the most important thing to remember, though, is that your goal at the end of the day is to make the RIGHT choice—not to elect YOUR choice. Keeping an open mind, collaborating whenever possible, listening closely, and working to know unknowns is the best way to leave your options open, and the most surefire bet to get where you want to be going—and that's what matters most of all.

Timothy MillerffComment