How to disagree brilliantly

John Willcox

Image of two similar but differently coloured hats illustrating the Fairisle article How to disagree brilliantly

Disagreements can be tricky. Especially when the stakes are high, such as when discussing changes to your organisation or business.

Sometimes what starts as a disagreement can escalate into a damaging conflict. So it can be tempting to try and avoid disagreement altogether. But the answer is not to avoid disagreements, it’s to learn how to disagree brilliantly.

Difference is the default

You may not realise it, but you disagree with others all the time. When people discuss a particular topic, they often have a different perception of the subject. As we discussed in our article ‘Deep and active listening’, every head is a world – everyone understands things differently. In fact you could say that difference is our default setting and in many ways it’s surprising we don’t disagree far more frequently than we do.

Shared documents don’t equal shared understanding

Maybe the problem is discussion itself? Not everybody is great at communicating verbally. And sometimes, particularly in a pressured environment, tempers can fray. In that case is it better to find another way to communicate? Perhaps you could carefully describe your position in writing. Many of us seem to believe that setting out our position in an email or even a tweet is much better – and less fraught – than thrashing things out in person. But is that really true? Well, yes, sometimes, if you have the time to craft your message so carefully that all ambiguity is removed. But more often, that default ‘difference setting’ comes into play and words that seem plain and clear to you carry a different meaning for someone else. Check out Cakewrecks for some great examples of how written communication can go badly wrong. Our favourite is the one where the instruction to the cakemaker was something like ‘Write so long Alicia (in purple) with stars around it’. (We’re grateful to Jeff Patton for pointing us to Cakewrecks. Jeff’s article ‘Read this first’ is a great read on this and other topics).

How to disagree brilliantly

OK, so we all disagree about everything and writing things down doesn’t work. What do we do? The first thing to appreciate is that disagreement isn’t bad. In fact it can be a positive force for good. Disagreement can fuel generation of better ideas and strategies. But listening is key. Listening is a big topic, but you can try this very simple exercise from Nancy Kline to see what we mean.

  • Arrange to meet the person with whom you have the disagreement (this works just as well on Zoom as in-person).
  • Agree who will speak first
  • The first speaker talks about the issue for 2 minutes, sticking to facts, and avoiding recriminations
  • No questions or interruptions are allowed, but silences and tangents are
  • Then switch round so that the listener becomes the speaker, again for 2 minutes

The speaker will feel that they are truly being heard. The listener, because they’re not allowed to interrupt, will give some really high quality attention to the other point of view. As a listener, you’ll find that you better understand the real reason for the original disagreement. You’ll get a clearer picture of the facts, and be less affected by your feelings about the topic, or the person with whom you disagree. Even better, you may well find that you start to find a better solution to the problem than either of you previously thought of. Nancy Kline argues that quality thinking starts with quality listening.

Conflict

As well as providing space for listening, this approach does a lot to take the ‘heat’ out of the issue. What escalates disagreements into conflict are feelings. It’s very easy to see disagreement as an affront, to get defensive or overly emphatic. We’re not saying feeling passionate about a topic is wrong, but it is helpful to remember that other people may disagree with your point of view for completely valid reasons. We express it like this:

Conflict = difference squared = facts + heightened feeling

Get in touch

We hope this short article has given you some insight into how to disagree brilliantly. There’s a lot more to say on the topic and we offer a full workshop which covers a whole range of techniques for how to disagree brilliantly. But as a first step, maybe try the exercise above, and get in touch to let us know how you got on.

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