We’ve all been there. You’re sitting in a meeting and someone comes out with the craziest idea, but for some reason they think it’s great. They think it will fix all your problems, whereas all you can see are the things they’ve overlooked, or the reasons why the idea won’t work.
Whether you’re in a meeting or discussing something by email, “that’s ridiculous” usually isn’t the best response to a bad idea.
Some English speakers try to get round the problem with vague language, hoping that people will read between the lines and understand that “that’s interesting,” “I’ll think about it,” or “I suppose we could try that” can all mean “no way, that will never work!” The problem is, especially when you’re working in a multi-national team, or when some people don’t express themselves clearly for fear of being impolite, you can end up with people thinking others love their ideas, when in reality the other colleagues have already dismissed them and moved on. I talked in more detail about this in my What English people say and what they really mean post.
So, what can you do instead? Here are five ideas.
1. Acknowledge something good before you go on to the problem
“That would definitely make things quicker, but what would we do about …/I think there might be a problem with/have you thought about?”
This shows that you’re not dismissing the idea straight away. You’ve acknowledged that the other person wants to save time/’make things easier/help in some way, but if you have a concern about practicalities, start by finding something positive to say and then raise your question. Maybe the other person had already thought about that particular detail. If they hadn’t, it gives them a direct question to consider.
Maybe the other person doesn’t have the same skill set as you. Maybe you know something sounds good in theory, but your company systems as they are at the moment wouldn’t be able to accommodate it.
Perhaps someone in another department wants to do something, but they don’t understand how you work and how this new idea could create new problems for you.
That would definitely make things easier, but I’m concerned about … because …
If you give reasons why you think the idea wouldn’t work, maybe the person who suggested it can come up with their own changes.
Maybe you could trial the idea on a smaller scale or for a limited period. Sometimes it is good to take a risk, as long as it’s a measured one and you are clear about the consequences and what you’d do about them.
2. Ask for more detail
People are different. Some share their greatest new idea as soon as they have it. Others take a more reflective approach, consider the implications, possible problems and how they can be solved.
If you’re working with someone who shares straight away, chances are that they won’t have given as much time to thinking it through. If you ask them to provide more detail/put something together for the next team meeting/work out the costs etc, they have to spend a bit more time thinking about it. Who knows, they may even work out for themselves that the idea is a non-starter.
3. Ask for other opinions
It really depends on the relationships and level of authority. Sometimes it pays to open up the discussion to a wider group so that it’s not just you saying that someone has justcome up with a really bad idea. However this may not be possible if you’re the one who makes the decision about how to allocate the budget, or how the business should be run. Having said that, there’s nothing more demotivating than working in an organisation where people feel that their views and ideas aren’t given due consideration.
With more contributors or a wider discussion, maybe the idea can be changed a bit so that it has potential to work.
4. Make it about the idea, not the person
It can be frustrating working with people whose ideas generally create more work than tangible benefits, but there’s that old saying that people may forget what you said or did, but they will remember how you made them feel. Try not to make it personal. Keep the focus on the idea, not the person making it, even if it is the 3rd impractical idea from them that week! Don’t make them feel that they can never come to you with another idea. If you can do this privately and not make someone feel embarrassed in front of a room of colleagues, even better.
5. Give a reason that the other person can understand
There are reasons why things can’t or won’t be done. It’s illegal! It’s morally questionable. It doesn’t make good business sense. It would cost too much. It’s not in line with the company goals or values. It’s not a priority right now.
Sometimes the answer just has to be “no”, but if you can explain it in a way that’s easy to understand, giving reasons, you may have closed the door to that idea, but it shows you’re still open to new ones.
Sometimes people will suggest that you do things that would result in working at a loss, or that would be really inconvenient. It isn’t up for negotiation because you can’t, or more specifically are not prepared to do these things. However, if you can, still try to give a reason.
Of course, the other person still might not like it, but at least you gave an objective reason as to why you’re not going to try out the idea or put it into practice.
More from English with Kirsty
I also did a podcast episode on this subject.
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