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How to Use Facts and Opinions to Defuse Conflict

Last week’s post on reconciliation in the midst of conflict, looked for mutually held purposes and values that opponents could use as a foundation for conversation, and encouraged the practice of focused listening and empathy to help work through differences of opinion.

Mutual respect will help sustain a relationship long past the friction caused by a typical clash of views, so keep the Platinum Rule in mind: Treat your opponents the way they want to be treated, not the way you want to be treated. For instance, you may prefer a public meeting, but they might be more comfortable with a walk and talk. You might like to review data and clarify points at your leisure in an email or a written document, but they may need to hear the sound of your voice to feel that you’re really working together.

Fact Check

Once the behavioral aspects of the conflict are under control, it’s easier to see what the content of the disagreement really is.

Disputes frequently arise when there’s no mutually agreed upon data set to serve as the basis for decision-making. Arguing about opinions is like trying to get through a traffic circle with bad signage: Once you’ve made your way in, you can’t tell how to get out, so you keep going around and around. If you don’t have the relevant facts to review and harness as part of a joint conclusion, you’ll have to figure out how to get them, or at least find surrogates for them.

The data doesn’t have to be presented as spreadsheets or charts of survey responses — they could be recurring anecdotes that come to the same conclusion or a set of observations collected over time. Often just reaching an understanding about which information is germane to the discussion will resolve the difference of opinion; sometimes new facts will help you make a more compelling presentation of your side of the argument.

If the methodology for collecting and presenting the data is at issue, particularly if it’s been questioned more than once, then the apparent data problem may be covering an underlying issue of mistrust that hasn’t yet come to the surface.

Maybe We Just Think Differently

Or perhaps the challenge is that you have divergent interpretations of the same facts because you have dissimilar perspectives and beliefs. A tentative positioning can test this out: “Based on the survey results, we can see that a significant and influential minority of our customers say that they’re relatively satisfied with our service overall, but that they wouldn’t recommend us to a friend. We may need to change our delivery approach to make it more appealing. What do you think?”

Depending on the particulars of the situation and the nature of your relationship, your differences may not be resolved every time, and occasionally you may even have to agree to disagree. In that case, you might want to pose a more complex question: “Despite our differences of opinion, how can we accomplish some portion of each of our goals and preferences — and still have everyone come out better as part of a working alliance?”

The Rolling Stones’ perspective is useful here: “You can’t always get what you want.” So can you work toward getting what you really need instead of getting everything you’d want if you could have it all? When you focus only on what you really need, does that give you enough wiggle room to come to agreement? Maybe all you really need is the chance to keep the issue open so you can reconvene and negotiate again without having damaged the relationship.

When complete accord isn’t possible, try to reach consensus on something small so that you can share it as a success, and subsequently look for other small bits of agreement: The very experience of finding common ground, creates a much greater likelihood that you’ll eventually be able to do it reiteratively in a progressively expanding process.

Next week we’ll look at how opponents can get back to business with the terms of an agreement in hand.

Onward and upward,


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2 thoughts on “How to Use Facts and Opinions to Defuse Conflict

  1. Micah, I appreciate the encouragement! I think there will be another couple of parts, and I’ve already gotten a question that may spark a whole new series on trust. Are there other aspects of the conflict topic that you’d like to see addressed?

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