Let’s Get Real: When The Issue Isn’t the Issue

The leader of a business association took me out to lunch the other day to recruit me for membership. He had his work cut out for him.

I had two legitimate hesitations in joining: First, I’m uncomfortable adding another commitment to my schedule. Second, although I like him personally, I don’t believe this leader has the ability to lead this association in the best direction.

Which of the two reasons do you think I gave for declining the offer?

And how do you think he responded when I told him I was too busy?

Not surprisingly, he shifted into aggressive “hard sell” mode. Over the next 30 minutes, as I continued to justify my crowded schedule, he continued to work on convincing me that joining the association would actually make me less busy because of the benefits I would gain.

Do you think his persistent advocacy got me closer to or further away from membership?


I’ve been on his side of the conversation, too. Last week a well-respected leader sent me an email saying he needed to end his involvement in a community project I’m helping to lead because he no longer has the time to dedicate to it.

During the first several minutes of our subsequent phone call, he shared legitimate explanations about the increased pressure on his schedule. But with his involvement so critical to the project, I faced a choice: Do I get aggressive, give up…or go deeper?

I decided to go deeper.

“You won’t hurt my feelings,” I said. “Please tell me what you really think about this project.”

“Well,” he said, “I’m not convinced that this project will attract sufficient support and attention. Lots of projects like this one compete for everyone’s time and money.”

The truth is, he is very busy. The issue wasn’t time, though. The issue was skepticism.

Human beings hold back reality from themselves and others because, well, reality bites. As much as it might hurt, though, reality is all that’s real. And it’s the foundation for the most productive and most satisfying human relationships.

The next time you’re getting push-back, go beyond the surface with these three steps:

  1. Acknowledge the concern. Notice I didn’t say “Affirm” the concern. A genuine statement of acknowledgement implies, “Your concern may not be valid but it matters.” This earns us the right to…
  2. Go deeper. The root of most resistance is fear—people are usually insecure or uncomfortable about sharing the real reasons they can’t or don’t want to do things. Often patience, probing and listening are the only ways to get beyond the wall.
  3. Make it safe. It’s scary to go deeper, so we need to show and remind people that they can be real with us—even if someone gets hurt. If it’s clear that sharing the issue behind the issue is going to make things worse, they won’t be likely to get real with you again in the future.

Where are you getting resistance right now? Are you sure that the issue is really the issue?



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  • Mike Norman
    November 5, 2014 at 9:46 pm

    Matt, you are addressing a significant issue for most of us. The problem for me when I just give excuses that are easier to say but may not be the real issue is it leaves the door open for further follow-up which may not be what I want. When giving reasons why I may or may not want to do something, I am going to work harder to address the “real” issue. When I am on the receiving end of these reasons/excuses, I will be more diligent in applying your three points to identify the “real” issue. Thanks!

    • Matt Norman
      November 5, 2014 at 10:49 pm

      Dad, thank you for the comment and your willingness to continually look at yourself and find ways to improve. Your point is a great one that not getting at the real issue, in fact, prolongs addressing the issue.

      • Bryce Kramm
        November 7, 2014 at 5:04 am

        Matt, Thanks for making time to meet with me this week. I appreciated your feedback that will help me grow and enjoyed our conversation. Thanks again!