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There is a specific pattern which appears frequently in my conversations and alienates my conversation partners. I would like advice on how to address that pattern as a whole, not just the one example I am giving.

It starts with someone expressing an idea. Today, it started with a colleague in a meeting, who said something along the lines of "we need a chart of our product setup, let's set aside a slot next all-hands meeting to work together on it". To which I answered "And how do we ensure that we don't end up with 3-4 people actively discussing and the other 25 zoning out?".

From everybody's reaction, and earlier conversations with friends, I can now piece back that I came across as saying "What a stupid idea, it will never work because people will zone out for sure".

The actual contents of my mind (some more salient than others at the time) were roughly "What an interesting idea, I would like to engage more with it. I would like it to succeed, but it's complex enough that it's not guaranteed if we just implement it naively. I just noticed a possible failure mode, and maybe you have already thought of it and have a strategy for avoiding it. If yes, I would be interested to hear it. If no, then I propose that we think about it, now or sometime later, because that way your idea is more likely to be successful".

This is something which has happened to me more than once, with different people, and different ideas. They say "we should do X", I say "and what can be done about Y", and they hear it as criticism. So I am afraid that I might be gaining a reputation as a grumpy naysayer.

What would be a good way to express my actual reaction, while still ensuring that the potential complication gets addressed? I would like some answer pattern which is more succinct than what I typed above, because I am afraid that people won't follow me if I am so wordy, and will probably change the topic before I have come to the point of the potential complication. Also, I am better at reflecting on the meaning of conversation after they have happened, but much more reactive during them, so I need something which I don't have to compose carefully in my mind for a full minute - I will either forget it, or somebody else will jump to another topic while I am doing it.

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    So what you are saying is you are only articulating a very small part of what you are thinking? – DaveG Jul 5 '18 at 23:43
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It sounds like you're trying to give constructive criticism, but you end up giving negative criticsim.

The big issue here is that if you point out flaws without showing support or giving a solution, you look like you're poking holes in the idea.

You may be thinking in your head that this is a cool idea that you'd like to help improve, but all everyone else sees is you poking holes in the idea. You're focusing on what's wrong without either communicating that you actually think the idea is good or giving an alternate solution.

One easy method to give constructive criticism is The Sandwich Method. You sandwich the "meat" or the criticism between two slices of positive feedback. Using the sandwich method, you could reword what you said to something like this:

I like this idea but I'm worried it'll be 3-4 people actively discussing and the other 25 zoning out. Can we discuss how we can prevent that?

"I like this idea," shows your positive support, then you voice your criticism, and then you head toward a positive solution, "Can we discuss...?"

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Your problem is that other people cannot read your mind. You have the right ideas, but you need to voice them to give people a chance of following your line of thought.

The right way to do that is outlined in countless instructions about constructive feedback. Basicly, this consists of 3 simple steps:

  1. State what you have observed
  2. State what is / was good
  3. State what could be improved (not "what was bad" but "how could it be improved")

Depending on how short your feedback is supposed to be, you can skip step 1, but then stick to step 2 & 3 in exactly that order. You don't have to remember more than those 3 steps and the more you practice, the more naturally it will become to follow them.

Let me give a comparison:

And how do we ensure that we don't end up with 3-4 people actively discussing and the other 25 zoning out?

You skipped memntioning anything positive about the idea. You asked a question that could be taken as an objective inquiry or could be interpreted as an attack on the very idea and the person voicing the idea.

Good idea, but I'm afraid we will end up with 3-4 people actively discussing and the other 25 zoning out. Why don't we give people a 5 minutes break between both meetings to catch some fresh air?

You balanced positive and negative feedback. Instead of being a grumpy naysayer you propose solutions and are actively working on the success of the idea.

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And how do we ensure that we don't end up with 3-4 people actively discussing and the other 25 zoning out?

You involuntarily used a marketing technique called visualization. An efficient tool to convince someone to buy your product/concept/idea is to make him visualize how life will be (positively) changed if he buys your product. Here, you portrayed a negative outcome so anyone participating in the conversation could visualize it and be convinced the idea is doomed to fail. This is especially convincing here as you used numbers, making the situation very concrete for everybody.

You can use visualization in a positive way here, or better in the given example, help the person at the origin of the idea describe the desired outcome. That way, you let them keep the leadership and help them convince other people (which is a good thing, since you genuinely think the idea is good).

That's a good idea. With 29 people discussing and tossing ideas, we would have a great chart in a blink of an eye. 29 people require organization. How do you plan to organize everybody so that we can work efficiently?

As everybody said, start by stating that you find the idea is good. I would avoid to start the next sentence by "But" or "there is a possible problem", as "That's a good idea. But..." is often a polite way to say that an idea sucks. Most of the time, you don't need to state a potential failure/problem, since you can orient the discussion on the concrete realization of the idea.

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I think the solution to your problem is something you are already capable of. You already virtually provided a reworded version in your question that would have been 1000s of times better. I can definitely relate to you as I always try to pick my words too carefully, or just blurt out something when what I say is not close to what I am thinking.

So I would take a moment before you speak up to a group to gather your thoughts. Then instead of saying the first thing that comes to your mind:

And how do we ensure that we don't end up with 3-4 people actively discussing and the other 25 zoning out?

the extra couple seconds of thought could lead to you instead saying:

What an interesting idea, I would like to engage more with it. I would like it to succeed, but it's complex enough that it's not guaranteed if we just implement it naively. I just noticed a possible failure mode, and maybe you have already thought of it and have a strategy for avoiding it. If yes, I would be interested to hear it. If no, then I propose that we think about it, now or sometime later, because that way your idea is more likely to be successful

Okay, maybe the above could still be improved but still better than what you previously said. Maybe you can instead say:

That's a great idea! I would like to get more people's thoughts on this since we are such a large group, what do we all feel would be great ways to get others more engaged?

That politely hits on the fact not many people participate but you are looking to change that without coming off rude.

So again, I think you are already capable of the adjustments you need to make, you just need to let your mind catch up to your thoughts before speaking so you can get out what you mean :)

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