An Instruction Manual for and about Dissenters

OutedA few weeks ago I posted an entry about how dissent strengthens collaboration. In that article I spoke some about how to respond to outliers – the people who express a divergent opinion, persist in not trusting, or in some other way stand apart from a group. While some may call them “dissenters,” when my colleague Lisa Rothman started referring to them as “outliers” I immediately took to it. The word “outlier” for me describes something wider than dissent. It can include being apart from a group even if in general agreement with it, and is more emotionally evocative for me. This is not a finished discussion, and I welcome your comments about it.

At the next Fearless Heart Teleseminar, a number of those present were grappling strongly with the topic, introducing an entire new angle: if any of us is an outlier, what can we do from that perspective, so we don’t have to wait for a facilitator or leader to be skilled enough to invite us in? This post was born on that call.

Why Outliers Matter

For the longest time, I figured that the reason to respond to outliers with kindness and interest is simply to model those qualities and to support people’s well-being. I didn’t even pause to think about the topic, even though I myself have been an outlier for as far back as I can remember. It wasn’t an epiphany that brought me to my current thinking, only a painstaking, incremental learning through practice.

First, I noticed that when I was facilitating a group that included someone that many in the group didn’t know how to respond to, people would often come up to me afterwards and thank me specifically for those moments when I engaged with that person: it was what gave them most hope, they often said. Seeing how I responded taught them something about how to be in a group. I also noticed how, after such exchanges, often the entire group felt more cohesive and ready. More people would share. I understood, gradually, that being able to include outliers was a strength in a group.

Smile_2It was still years before I came to have the unshakable faith I now have that any successful engagement with an outlier, especially in the context of reaching a decision, leads to more wisdom. That wisdom either resides directly in the outlier’s often difficult-to-hear message, or it emerges from the attempt to incorporate the outlier’s needs and perspectives and arises from somewhere else in the group.

Even if the outlier is the only one with their perspective, the move to incorporate and transcend the disagreement calls forth creativity. In addition, there are often other people with similar perspectives in a group who are reticent about expressing their views, and the outlier may be their only path to being part of the discussion. This understanding is what has led me to a core and unique feature of Convergent Facilitation: the active soliciting of dissent before making any decisions.

The recent call has now led me to also look at what outliers can do to enhance the chances of their gifts being received. The rest of this article explores the question from both sides of the dilemma of a group’s effective engagement with outliers: first how leaders can make it easier for outliers to bring their divergent perspectives to the group, and then what outliers can learn from all that about how to make it easier for the group.

Tips for Inviting Outliers to Speak

One of the first bits of clarity to emerge from the phone call was that outliers aren’t always visible or confrontational. Many others make different choices, some or all of the time: to silently sit on their opinions, distancing themselves from a group without giving it their gifts; or only talk to individuals outside group time; or drop hints and cues without being fully forthright. It’s easier to learn, as a facilitator or other leader, how to engage with the outlier who’s in your face than to learn how to invite the others in; how to create a sense of safety and freedom to speak up.

The good news is that there’s no need for some major fantastical training, or astounding capacities in providing deep empathy to those who speak. In my experience, everyone can learn at least some of the basic steps I list below. It’s all about how to make it easier for people to cross the barrier presented by group cohesion in order to put themselves at the center of attention so the group can benefit from the wisdom that then arises.

How much wisdom? How much dissent to invite?

Before inviting outliers to step into the conversation, I aim to remind myself of a major paradox. On the one hand, the more the group engages with outliers, the more wisdom and the better outcome emerge. On the other hand, the more the group engages with outliers, the more resources of time and energy the group process consumes.

On the practical plane, the question I ask myself and sometimes invite the group to consider is how much wisdom the situation requires given the purpose? This question points the way to how much dissent is necessary and relevant. While I almost always invite dissent, I can encourage more or less depending on how I ask for it.

For example, if all the group is after is to just figure out which restaurant we’re going to go to for dinner, we don’t need a whole lot of wisdom! We just need something that will work adequately enough. In this case, unless there is some very specific reason to do otherwise, I wouldn’t invite a whole lot of dissent. It could look like this: “How about we go the new Mexican restaurant in downtown? And please let’s not clutter the space with more and more and more suggestions. Before offering anything else, just think if the restaurant I proposed really won’t work for you.” This is a narrow invitation to dissent.

If, on the other hand, we are talking about the shared purpose of the group, it’s way more important that we harvest every bit of wisdom present, so that we come up with a shared purpose that we can all sink into for a long time to come. This could look like this: “OK, let’s take a moment to reflect on the latest proposal that Marie has brought up. Think about it carefully, and let us all know if there’s anything, even small, that doesn’t represent your sense of what we’re here to do together.” This is a much wider invitation.

Asking easy questions

As the two examples just above show, how we solicit input from a group sends a powerful message about what’s invited. The more we want to encourage dissent, the easier we want to make it to answer the question we ask to invite it.

However wide the net we cast, there are things we can do to make it easier to cross the barrier and come forth as an outlier. One is that yes/no questions are easier to answer than open-ended questions. If I say to a group, “Please raise your hand if you have a concern about the plan as it’s emerging through our discussion,” that’s much easier for people to response to than if I say, “Does anyone have anything they want to say about the plan?”

My goal is to lower the barrier as far as I can to make it easiest for people to express what is true for them within the range of dissent that I see necessary for the purpose at hand. To do that, I often think in terms of asking a question such that expressing dissent will be a “yes” rather than a “no.”

For example, imagine that you believe that someone doesn’t trust you any more. If you ask the person: “Do you trust me?” they have to say “no” in order to tell the truth. This presents a challenge for them, because, being human, they know that hearing “no” is hard. If, on the other hand, you say: “I am sensing that you may have lost your trust, is that true?” the road is paved for them to express the truth, because the possible mistrust has already been acknowledged. In addition, telling the truth in this instance would happen using the word “yes”, which they know, intuitively, even without being aware of it, is far easier for you to hear. Indeed, if you can imagine the situation, you will see that their “yes” would have a paradoxical effect of bringing you ever so slightly together.

Similarly, if you are part of a team, and you are presenting an idea for a project, if you ask people if they like the idea, they will have to say “no” if they don’t like it, which is more of an effort than if you invite people to tell you their concerns about the project, which opens the door to their dissent.

One other element that makes questions easy to respond to is using really simple language and really simple practices. If I say, as a manager: “It’s safe to say anything you want to say,” in many groups this can actually result in loss of safety. If, instead, I say “I give everybody my word that the truth will be rewarded rather than penalized,” and especially if I then show it, that contributes much more to people feeling free to speak.

“Rewarding” dissenting views

クワトロッソの大きさOne of my core practices that I have integrated in a deep way is the practice of appreciating difficult messages when they arrive even if I don’t like them. In the context of working within a group, it means rewarding people who say “no” by saying “yes” to them.

If every time that somebody speaks, regardless of what they say, they are appreciated then more people will feel free to speak. If, every time somebody speaks, what they’re saying is reflected back to them, there will be a smaller barrier for other people to cross. The more “yes” there is in the room, the less of a barrier there is for people to cross.


The last tip I offer for how to invite outliers into the room blends into the list of tips for outliers offered next: model speaking truth, being open, sharing what may be an unpopular opinion, owning mistakes, expressing vulnerably. Anyone in a group who does it opens up the group for others to do the same. All the more so if it is the facilitator or a leader in the group. By you feeling free to do it and modeling it, it creates a slightly smaller barrier for anyone else to cross in sharing where they are.

Tips for Outliers

One of the biggest treasures I have is a diary that my mother kept about me in my early years. It, and other stories I am told about my childhood, confirm my own inner sense: I’ve been an outlier my entire life. This has been a gift for me as a facilitator, in that it’s helped me both have understanding for and interest in the experience and perspective of outliers in groups I work with. One way of looking at the trajectory of my development over the last twenty years of being immersed in Nonviolent Communication is to say that I have become a more effective outlier. What I mean by that is simple: I intuitively trust that most of the time most of us outliers are motivated by care and the desire to contribute rather than anything that’s so often attributed to us. I know all of us have been labeled difficult, obstinate, opinionated, obstructive, domineering, selfish, insensitive, negative, and a host of other painful words. When I facilitate, I put active effort into reducing the chances that other outliers would experience my responses or those of others in the group through this painful lens, though, sadly, I don’t always succeed.

As an outlier myself, I aim to do two main things. One is to approach others in ways that are least likely to generate those judgments about me, and the other is to increase my capacity to absorb judgments without collapsing. This latter capacity is subtly and significantly different from not caring what people think. Not caring disconnect me from others, while increasing capacity to absorb makes room for others and enfolds everything within itself by expanding.

Getting support from elsewhere

All of the tips I present here are based on my own personal experience and what I have learned on my way to being able to survive, and often even thrive, as a “professional” outlier in the world. I start with focusing on getting support, because it really is unquestionably the core of what’s been helpful to me.

Simply put, as an outlier, I am continually exposed to contexts in which the general flow of juice and energy within a group, that feeds people’s capacity to live and breathe, is less available to me. Since support and emotional resonance are critical food for humans, I have learned that I must get it from elsewhere in order to strengthen myself. I consciously look for those places and people where simply who I am and how I show up are easy for others to be with, and immerse myself in receiving as much as I can. This allows me, then, to have more courage and stamina in places and context and with people where that foundational acceptance and flow are not available to me. I can then be sourced from within for longer, and take more risks to bring my unique perspective and vulnerability even when it’s not fully welcome.

With more inner strength, I have more capacity to do all the discernment attendant upon stewarding the unique perspective of a chosen outlier, what I also have been referring to as a conscious disruptor.

When no one else is going to assess how much dissent is necessary, I am the only one who can do the discerning of how much of my divergent perspective to offer. Historically, this has been difficult for me, because truth was always so important to me that I offered it without considering the effects on others, and whether those effects are helpful or not for the purpose at hand, since my purpose was always to offer as much of the truth in me as possible. When no one is consciously aiming to make it easier for me to cross the barrier, I need enough inner strength to take the risk of offering something that won’t ultimately be a gift, even into a potentially hostile group.

I am grateful to the many dozens of people who are part of my immediate and extended support team for continuing to have faith in me, for loving me, and for catching me in times of despair, so I can pick myself up, again and again, and recommit to the task of living the fullness of nonviolence as it appears within me.

Focusing on continuity and similarity

One of the traps that awaits outliers, one that I have still only partially climbed out of, is the habit of seeing our difference from others much more than our similarity to them. Even though I fully know it’s so, it’s not an easy message to integrate after a childhood of being bullied and ostracized. At least I have overcome my ambivalence to embracing this notion, because I know how vitally necessary it is.

One of my dearest friends, Kit Miller, used to be the director of BayNVC and is now directing the Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence in Rochester. I think about her in this context because she and I have completely, profoundly aligned perspectives on life, on what’s happening in the world, on what’s needed to create change, and on so many other things.

miki and kit 2 crop

Miki and Kit Miller, in Rochester 2013

And yet, everywhere she walks, doors are opening for her. And I go through so much knocking on doors that don’t open. And it is very, very, very clear to me that the difference is that everywhere she goes, she looks for, finds, experiences, and rejoices in what she has in common with other people who are there. And what I do, still and habitually, is look for and notice all the ways in which I’m different. Why this is so, for both of us, is quite beyond my immediate focus. Whether it’s a genetic predisposition, different personal histories, or something else is not the point for me. I am looking at the effect, and at what any of us who are outliers might be able to do about this.

Our task, all of us who have this experience of being outliers, is to keep reminding ourselves that focusing on what we have in common with other people is not lack of integrity.

In this context I have found the practice of Nonviolent Communication to be of fantastic help. It helps ground both the similarity and the difference. It is always true that my needs and the needs of the people in the room with me are the same. That’s the continuity, and it’s also the core premise of NVC. The differences are in the sensibilities, sensitivities, personal and cultural histories, and mysterious makeup that ultimately lead to the difference in opinions, preferences, or even worldview, which is what stands out. That’s significant, and, still, I can choose to focus on the commonality. To the extent that I can do that, I am more likely to be received. How much choice do I or any other outlier have in the matter? That we can only discover through practice. I have taken on the practice of naming to myself, internally, three things I have in common with people I experience as different from me, and the jury is still out on how far this practice will take me.

From problem to gift

Once I see the continuity, I can also more consistently remember that what I have to offer is a gift, not a problem. If I am immersed in seeing the difference, I am more likely to be in fear and protection, which make the gift offering contracted, not generous and flowing.

When I as the outlier want to become more able to offer my gifts to the group or the world, it means I am taking on the leadership role even if the official leader or facilitator isn’t attending to outliers. It is then my responsibility to make what I say easiest to hear. The first order of business, then, is to trust it within myself.

When I assume that what I have to offer is not going to be well-received, my energy field, on the most basic and physiological level, is going to be stiff and braced. It will very often become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

When I can walk into a room, I aim to remember to tell myself something like: “I may have different views here, and those views really could be a gift to the people in the room. Maybe not, but they could be. Since they’re not different to me, why wouldn’t it be interesting to them?” The more I am able to do that, the more I trust that how I then deliver what I have to offer will be softer, and thus the higher the chances are that it will be received.

Saying what we want without complaints or comparisons

One of the most reliable ways for making our outlier gift and truth the most palatable possible is to find ways of saying our truth in positive terms, without putting down someone else or some other opinion or perspective, and without expressing anything negative.

For me, that, too has been a challenge. One of my strengths is the capacity to draw out distinctions. It’s part of what makes my teaching so clear to so many people, and it’s clearly a double-edged sword, because making distinctions lends itself to contrasting and comparing. So, in the example of choosing a restaurant, imagine that somebody suggested Jane’s Good Old Restaurant, and that I want to go to that same new Mexican restaurant I mentioned earlier. If I say, “I really want to go to Amanda’s Mexican Grill because it’s a restaurant that has a wide variety of things and I think it can allow everyone to have something that they can eat,” that’s stating my opinion and its reasons without taking any issue with anyone else’s opinion. It’s far easier to digest than my habitual way, hopefully one I have overcome to some extent, of saying: “Oh, I don’t want to go to Jane’s because I don’t like the waiter. I would rather go to the Mexican restaurant where there is a lot of selection for everyone.” Comparing the two ends up putting down the person who proposed Jane’s. I really want all of us outliers to be fluent in making our perspective known while keeping it really dignified and okay for anybody to want what they want.

As you can see from what I say, and no doubt if you know me in life, beyond just reading my words, this is still work in progress for me. There is no clear ending to this piece, because I am still figuring it out. I wrote this because waiting until I figure it out fully – which may not happen ever – does not seem like a responsible act these days. In my sense of things, there is too little dissent, too few outliers willing to speak their hearts and minds, for us, collectively, to be able to turn the tide towards that ever elusive vision of making the world work for all of life.

INVITATION: To discuss this and other posts with me and other readers of this blog, check in to the free Fearless Heart Teleseminars. Next dates:
Sunday May 8, 10:30-noon
Monday May 9, 5:30-7pm

The first time you comment on the site it will alert us to approve you manually. After that, your comments will be approved automatically, unless you include a link, which will require manual approval. We hope you will comment freely!

This is a space for discussing tough subjects: both personal experiences and the massive challenges in the wider world. The culture of this blog is one of looking for the possibility of forward movement through loving engagement, even, and especially, in times of disagreement. Please practice nonviolence in your comments by combining truth and courage with care for me and others you’re in dialogue with.

Image credits: Outlier tulip “Outed” by Tonyjmcgregor – Own work, Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 4.0. “Smile” By Jessica Tam, Wikimedia, CC BY 2.0. Roses, By Tatsuya.f – Own work, Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0. Miki and Kit, by permission.

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on LinkedInPin on PinterestEmail this to someone

Leave a Reply