Leadership Advice

How to push back productively

Advice from Jill Geisler, Bill Plante Chair in Leadership & Media Integrity, Loyola University Chicago and Freedom Forum Fellow in Women’s Leadership

We’re in a conversation or brainstorming session and it happens: We push back on peoples’ ideas with skeptical questions, enumeration of obstacles, lists of things that are more important, or even arguments about validity.

When I wrote recently about “automatic pushback” — how to anticipate and respond to it, I heard from a lot of appreciative managers. They now understand how common it can be — and not just because people want to cause them pain. It’s just human nature.

But human or not, your pushback shouldn’t be hurtful. 

More often than you may know, you can be the “loyal opposition” instead of just an opponent of an idea or the person offering it.

If you want to have healthy give-and-take while exploring ideas, here are some tips:

  • Remember how easy it is for us to reject ideas because they aren’t ours, and warm to them when we start owning a piece of them. If your first inclination when hearing an idea is to go negative, ask yourself if you’d feel differently if you had proposed it.
  • Instead of “shutdown statements,” try “how questions.” Shutdown statement: “We tried that before and it didn’t work.” How question: “How could we do it this time so it has a better chance of success?”
  • If you’re an extrovert who thinks out loud and often starts in a negative place, practice pausing for reflection first. It takes practice, but you can learn the skill.
  • Ask genuine questions, that is, ones to which you really don’t know the answers. “Do we have enough budget left to cover it?” “Will we have to drop something else in order to do this?”
  • Try the improv comedy technique of “Yes, and! The idea isn’t to substitute your idea for someone else’s, but rather to build on it. As Second City says: “A large part of improv is that you are always there for your scene partner or partners, and, in turn, they are always there for you. This is the goal of ‘Yes, and!’ By saying yes to your scene partner, you create something much more entertaining.”
  • Don’t play “devil’s advocate” when you really just want to bedevil someone. If you dislike or disrespect someone, don’t use a phony construct to show it. Resolve your differences in a way that doesn’t impede everyone’s work and make others in a meeting needlessly uncomfortable. 
  • Don’t use automatic pushback as a way to duck difficult conversations about overarching issues. If you feel people push work onto others, or don’t listen well, or make unrealistic requests, then have a direct conversation about the bigger issue, rather than repeatedly shooting down their ideas and hoping they get your hidden message.
  • Be open with your colleagues about why you often raise obstacles before getting to options. Some of us are born worriers. Let your colleagues know that you’re the person on the team who’ll probe worst-case scenarios, but only to have a Plan B — not to kill Plan A. If you’re transparent about your instinctive behavior and you are an otherwise supportive, productive colleague, you won’t be labelled an “idea killer.”

To be fair, whoever first said “there are no bad ideas” may have been a bit Panglossian. (Oh, I’ve waited years to use that word in a column — and see, I didn’t completely shoot the saying down!)

We’re all capable of goofy notions from time to time.  How our colleagues coach us away from them and toward better options — without demeaning us — is a measure of great collaborative working relationships.


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Yvonne Simons
Yvonne Simons
2 years ago

Jill, I am really glad to read this column this morning! Our newsroom is working on skillset building in 2021… for individuals. In 2021, I dont have big raises to offer, but we do have training and team building to make sure when advertising dollars return to television and digital portals, our staff is better skilled and ready to qualify for more compensation. We, as a newsroom, are heavily involved in talking about new workflows and how to make sure our big projects are done well. This is a good reminder for me of what not to do… and how… Read more »

Last edited 2 years ago by Yvonne Simons