The Dissent Conversation

This is the conversation that gives people the space to say “no”. If you can’t say “no”, then your “yes” really has no meaning. The path to genuine commitment begins with doubt, and “no” is an expression of people finding their space and role in any strategies for change.

Dissent is the cousin of diversity; it is based on the respect for a wide range of beliefs. Each needs the chance to express their doubts and reservations, without having to justify them, or move quickly into problem solving.

The fear is that by making room for dissent, we will only make people more negative, and less willing to embrace new possibilities. Yet “no” is the beginning of a real conversation for commitment. It is the public expression of doubts, and authentic statements of “no”, that shifts a culture and builds accountability and commitment. It is only when we fully understand what people do not want, that real choice becomes possible. And we will let go of only those doubts that we have given voice to.

It is important to see the difference between authentic dissent and inauthentic refusal. An authentic dissent is one in which the person owns that the dissent is their choice and not a form of blame or complaint. Inauthentic refusal comes in the forms of lip service, denial, rebellion and resignation.

Leaders need to protect space for the expression of people's doubts and concerns. We want to make room for the doubts to be expressed openly, not left to quiet conversations in the hallways, among allies, or in the restrooms. And saying “no” does not cost us our membership in the meeting or the community.

The leadership challenge is to bring dissent to the surface without having to argue with it, or to answer for every doubt or anxiety that is raised. The challenge is to frame questions in a way that invites the dissent to be authentic. All we have to do with the doubts of others is get interested in them. Don't solve them, defend against them, or explain anything ... just get genuinely interested.

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Some questions for the expression of dissent:

What doubts and reservations do you have?

What do you want to say “no” to, or refuse, that you keep postponing?

What have you said “yes” to, that you do not really mean?

What is a commitment or decision that you have changed your mind about?

What resentment do you hold that no one knows about?

What forgiveness are you withholding?

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(edited and adapted from) Peter Block “Community – The Structure of Belonging” 2008 and Peter Block “Civic Engagement and the Restoration of Community” 2007



Peter Block “Community – The Structure of Belonging”
now in a second edition, revised and updated
Berrett-Koehler Publishers; 2nd ed. edition (July 17, 2018)

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