This week the highest grossing movie is How to Train Your Dragon.

It reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend a few years back. He ended our call with “I’m off to go slay dragons.” My response? “Why would you do that, tame them and harness their power for the greater good.”

When I think of dragons, I think of the opposition to a policy, the competitors for a contract, even occasionally the family members who think I am about to do something crazy. They can be big obstacles in our way. And certainly, getting rid of them is an option. But a messy option that takes a ton of energy.

In business, politics and in life, I have found that today’s opponent often reappears later as a needed and even trusted ally.  If you take a “slay the dragon approach” you often end up scorching the earth so no relationship can be rebuilt later. Better to co-opt them and get them on your team. Not only can you deal with the opposition issues, often by persuading them to change course, you grow your power by adding theirs.

The key is to understand your dragon.

Here are three tips:

  1. Figure out what they really want. Sometimes it’s new resources. Sometimes it’s recognition. Sometimes it’s about protecting something. I am reminded of a time I was working to build a residence for people recovering from serious mental illness. The neighbors were angry. They were afraid for their property values. The data that showed it would make no difference did persuade a few people but not all which brings me to tip 2.
  2. Understand the emotional context. Those people who were not persuaded were afraid. They were afraid of people they did not know or understand. They were afraid because of cultural beliefs. For them, it was important to remember, on the one hand, the folks we were housing were going to be in treatment, have rules to follow, and consistent staff contact. And on the other hand, it was important to remind them that fair housing law says we don’t get to pick our neighbors – not on the basis of race or religion or health status or most other factors. 
  3. Take the wins. When you get what you need, say thank you and stop arguing. Sometimes people and dragons change course for reasons that are not our first choice. For example, fear of a lawsuit instead of welcoming new people. The goal is for the dragon to change course. Always better when for the right reason but also fine if for the less right reason. 

Ultimately, we were able to build the residence. We started the project with a neighborhood committee who met monthly to help shape things and share concerns. There were no issues. The committee disbanded after about a year. And those neighbors showed up to help support us in our next venture.

How do you handle the dragons in your world?

Have a great week,