Disagreements and conflicts occur in every organization, no matter how high-functioning the team, how clear the mission, or how lovely the people. As we’ve seen in the last two posts, conflict-averse executives who don’t share their true opinions out of fear of near-term discomfort often end up coping with bigger problems in the long term. It’s much more practical to learn to disagree productively.
Skillful disagreement takes both thought and practice. Here are four different tactics for removing some of the risk, discomfort, and potential wastefulness of disagreement and conflict.
1. Avoid Good Guy/Bad Guy Classifications
Don’t make types out of people, and don’t apply stereotypes to them. It’s easy to prejudge how people will behave and how things will go based on your past experience or personal taste. But everyone involved is a unique human being in very particular circumstances, so don’t close your mind to the possibility that things could go very differently from your expectations.
Check your own perceptions and logic. Imagine having the same problems with other people: Would the conflict feel the same way? Your perceptions of a person’s standpoint may be based on your own assumptions about that person rather than their actual positions and behavior. Be careful to group people into types or roles based on your notion that they agree or disagree with you.
2. Practice Fact-Checking and Values Check-Ins
Are your facts in conflict, or is it your interpretations of those facts that don’t match? Both sides may have the same data, but interpretations can vary based on the process used to gather information and the lens used to review the situation. You might even be using the same terms while ascribing different beliefs, and meanings to them.
To have a productive discussion, you may need to go back and forth, checking on the consistency of your mutual goals, the values that underpin your beliefs about how things should be done, and even your data — just to ensure you’re all working in the same direction.
3. Establish an Etiquette of Disagreement
People sometimes avoid disagreement because they’re afraid of how truly upset they’ll be if they can’t come to a mutually beneficial resolution. Or they may fear that one side will triumph and the other will lose abjectly. Instead of resigning yourself to an ongoing deadlock or stalemate, structure a procedure that everyone agrees to use for ascertaining the crucial elements of the conflict.
- Articulate the nature of the problem in a factual, measured way, without accusations or moralizing.
- Identify the preferences, goals, and facts underlying each position. Discuss which aspects have the greatest impact and highest priority for both the organization and the individuals involved.
- Find the elements of the situation on which both sides hold the same view — or, at least, can see each other’s points of view.
- Have all parties collaborate on constructing a resolution that accommodates everyone’s crucial needs.
Remember that what feels like conflict might really be either or both parties worrying out loud about what could go wrong and what the implications could be.
4. Attend Carefully to Language and Tone
Some situations require great tact and in other cases, blunt candor can actually be appreciated. Consider the actual opening lines, below, each used by a different person trying to reengage with others after having been in disagreement. Without knowing the specifics of the situation or style of delivery, which of these approaches would you expect to be the most effective for maintaining a productive dialog?
- “You didn’t get what I was saying yesterday…”
- “You and I were talking at cross purposes when…”
- “I’m sorry I wasn’t clear in our earlier conversation. What I wanted to get across was…”
If your language or tone declares your judgment that the other person was dead wrong or too stupid to understand — as in in the first example — or even that the disagreement was as much the other party’s fault as it was yours — as in the second example — it can be much harder to elicit a non-defensive, open-minded, thoughtful response from the other side. And that kind of response is exactly what you’re after!
Onward and upward,