I’m very lucky to experience much less disagreement or outright conflict on the job than most people. Although my clients’ views may differ from mine in many ways, it’s implicit in our relationship that we’re mutually committed to figuring things out together and coming to the strongest possible joint solutions.
But some of the folks I work with have dozens of crucial disagreements every week as if they are explicitly job responsibilities! In fact, I often coach or counsel people who’ve been having the same long-running disagreement or underlying conflict for — I hate to say it — years.
I’ve observed and analyzed numerous disagreements as part of my consulting role, and have helped people work through many of them, and it’s quite clear that logic isn’t enough to ensure collaboration. Two equally logical people can hold such completely different beliefs or represent such different positions that it feels like they’ll never come to any kind of useful agreement.
Making the First Move
So how can you make a start when you truly need to accomplish something together but don’t see eye to eye? Sometimes it helps to work on the relationship itself, along with the issue.
There’s no way to force people to be comfortable as collaborators, and directing them to like each other is absolutely ineffective. But there is a useful technique that can open a pathway to dialog. It comes out of couples and relationship counseling, so it’s not usually identified as a workplace tool.
It won’t overcome structural barriers, lack of competence, or bad intent. But it has workplace application when both sides are operating in good faith, yet can’t seem to broach the wall that exists between them.
Creating a Connection
“Making a bid for connection” is how Dr. John Gottman, a psychologist renowned for analyzing the behaviors and expectations that make marriages and other intimate relationships successful, describes the process.
One of the parties initiates connection — tentatively — with a tiny action or communication to try to establish a small but affirmative interaction.
The other side may “turn away” by ignoring the bid, “turn against” in an attack, or deliver the desired outcome by “turning toward” and reciprocating with another genuine, positive communication or action. Whenever one person turns toward the other’s bid for connection, both people are on stronger footing without necessarily having expressed anything about the content of the conflict at all.
It’s usually best to start with the smallest bid and the lowest risk you can. Make the hurdle so low that it’s almost impossible not to at least accidentally clear it. “Can you believe the game last night?” is a very small bid; “Want to get a cup of coffee and discuss this?” is a larger one.
Raising the Ante
Once you’ve established tacit agreement that both sides are going to try to engage constructively, you can be more direct, and at the first airing of a potential disagreement, make a stronger bid by asking kindly, “May I share a different perspective?” That gives notice that you do, in fact, disagree, but that you’re willing to do it in the most respectful way possible, letting your opponent create the conditions for sharing. Doesn’t that sound less threatening and more agreeable than “I disagree!” or “That’s not the way it is!”?
If you’re getting a negative reaction to your input, you can make a slightly different bid: “Would you like to share a different perspective?” That makes clear your respect for the other party as a human being, as well as your desire to hear what they have to say.
It takes patience to take these very small steps. But the more frequent and the larger the bids, the more likely it is that, over time, the relationship will develop, permitting other techniques for conflict resolution to begin taking hold.
Onward and upward,