Despite Benjamin Franklin’s saying about death and taxes, there are many other things pretty much guaranteed in life. One of them is disagreements. I hate disagreements. Actually, it’s not so much that I hate disagreements, it is that I dislike handling disagreements. The truth of the matter is that I could learn to do a much better job dealing with the reality that not many people see the world just the way I do. If I could get in the habit of handling disagreements better I would have a much richer, more complete perspective of my world.
What is a disagreement? A difference in values.
Disagreements occur when we hold a view on a matter that is different than someone else’s view. Given each person’s unique walk in life and their God-given wiring, disagreements are to be expected. If you dig deep enough, you’ll find that most disagreements are rooted in a difference in values. I had a disagreement with a colleague recently about how to solve a problem. The other person valued expediency and showing others quick action. I valued a systemic approach and wanted to take additional time to address root causes. We simply valued different things in addressing the issue. If you pause to analyze any disagreement by asking lots of “Why is that?” questions, you’ll find that values are usually the difference.
What do we normally do about disagreement? Dig in and defend.
Normally, when faced with disagreement, our first action is to turn inward and build defenses around our own beliefs. We strategically muster factual as well as emotional “data points” that bolster our position based on our own values. Then, we turn outward and use those defenses as attacks to argue why our own position is better. As the other person does the same to us, we calculate the “trajectory” of their defensive attacks to determine which of our own defenses will offer the best response. We end up with a verbal volley that actually achieves little until someone decides to give in. What’s the result? Two unchanged and further entrenched minds.
What should we do about disagreement? Open up and consider.
We should handle disagreements by first opening up and considering the possibility that our own values and perspectives have flaws and thoughtfully exploring other’s values and perspectives as potentially valid. This requires a character trait that is very difficult for most of us, including me—humility. To engage in this process we must risk being wrong or needing to modify a position. Start by first seeking clarity. We must identify the true root cause of the disagreement. I once saw a disagreement that at first appeared to be about the effectiveness of a new compensation program. In the end, though, the decision makers were worried about their new role in having to provide negative feedback and constructive criticism to employees. Tremendous time was committed to persuading the decision makers that the compensation plan was the best strategy. At first they fought hard using their defensive attacks. After seeking clarity on the matter, we finally discovered that the real issue was their new responsibility to be more frank with employees.
Once clarity is established (i.e. What are we really talking about?), then seek to understand. Ask questions, then more questions, followed by a batch of additional questions. Your goal in seeking to understand is the ability to articulate the other person’s position as effectively and persuasively as they can. It isn’t about who is right or wrong. It is about being able to deeply appreciate other’s values and perspectives in the midst of disagreement.
What’s next? It depends.
What you do next depends on what happened while seeking clarity and understanding. In my experience, when I have truly sought clarity and understanding, I find that the other person follows and does likewise. With a greater mutual appreciation for each other’s values and perspectives new possibilities are sometimes discovered. The search for clarity and understanding seem to engage a creative process that facilitates problem solving.
Sometimes, after truly seeking clarity and understanding, an effective solution isn’t discovered right away, but the two people develop greater respect for one another. This respect leads to trust and the ability to work together. As leaders know, we must be able to work with people who hold different views. These experiences over disagreements can forge alliances and partnerships that are the basis of great things in the future.
My friend TJ Addington, director of ReachGlobal, said, “One of the signs of emotional maturity is the ability to disagree with someone and still remain connected relationally.”1 Disagreement can be very uncomfortable, and it can get very ugly. Handled properly, disagreement can be the foundation of great relationships and great work.
How do you handle disagreement? What is one thing that helps you handle these difficult discussions?
1: For more on disagreement, see TJ Addington’s blog