Updated: Mar 15, 2022
Polarization is a force that feeds itself: the gap widens when people on opposite sides believe they are right, and hostilities and mistrust grow. We are divided by socioeconomic status and political and religious beliefs on issues from COVID-19 to climate change.
Should companies require their employees to get vaccinated? Should businesses take action against climate change? Which perspectives are considered when managers lead for purpose?
Some cultures frown upon openly disagreeing with others. At work, an employee may not speak up in fear of negative repercussions, whether alienated for their beliefs or passed over on a promotion. It may be easier to bite your lip in personal relationships than to confront a family member or a friend.
But the risk of not speaking up is the lost opportunity to know the other person better. Bottling up feelings lead to adverse mental and physical health (anxiety, stress, and heart-related issues). Conflict avoidance can lead to passive aggression. Problems fester when effective communication is inhibited. At work, repressing important views could lead to derailed projects (or worse still, fatal accidents).
Healthy disagreement around problems or ideas indicates an interest and respect for the other party to engage in constructive and productive debate. On the other hand, apathy or unwillingness to engage in difficult conversations build an invisible barrier of ignorance, spelling eventual breakdown in relations.
We are bound to disagree. The key to transforming our disagreements into effective discussions is to have the right mindset. This article is not about winning political arguments but about having constructive conversations on areas of disagreement.
Constructive conversations tend to have these elements:
Need to Be Heard
First, understand that each of us wants to be heard and acknowledged. Each side should give the other the space to fully express their opinions and feelings. While it may be tempting to interrupt, don't.
Listen openly rather than to the stories you expect to hear. You think you know what they're going to say before they've said it. Practice active listening rather than wait for your time to pounce with a biting retort from your side.
Ask Permission to Disagree
Find the appropriate time and place to disagree. If you disagree with a supervisor on their views, ask if you can disagree and if you can talk about it. Depending on the work culture, disagreeing openly may be negatively received. Consider setting up the discussion in a neutral environment and a quiet location, where both sides feel free to open up.
Setting up a time in the future to speak gives the parties space to reflect and reconsider their views, making their shared discussion more impactful.
Leave Drama at the Door
Sometimes it is easy for emotions to run high, particularly if we disagree with someone on social issues because we feel our identities are attacked. If our perspectives are influenced by political and religious beliefs or background, perhaps take a step back. What is the argument that is central to the dispute? Try not to make the argument personal.
Leave the drama at the door before entering the discussion. Keep emotions in check when you are speaking. If it helps, pause and take deep breaths to calm yourself down. Slamming doors and hitting tabletops often has the opposite effect of having your argument heard—such behavior weakens your credibility.
Connect to Shared Goals
Identify what you have in common, mainly what shared goals you have. Imagine the conflict between engineering and product design teams. The former wants to test and ship as many features as possible before refining the customer experience because they believe lesser features will cause the team to lose customers. The product design team wants to refine the customer experience and delay the launch because they think it would be more challenging to attract customers after a bad experience.
In a relationship, a couple may argue over the choice of a sofa. One may argue for the higher-priced option because the sofa is of better quality, and the other may argue for the lower-priced option so that they could use the savings for traveling.
It would be easier to move forward in both the work and relationship examples if the two sides agreed on their shared goals. Identifying where they have in common helps both sides come to an agreement quicker. In the process, you'll better understand the parameters of the argument and the problem that needs to be solved.
In the work example, the shared goal is to retain as many customers as possible. They could set a goal to reach a certain number of customers by a particular deadline. Then together, the engineering and product teams could identify the top key features that are important for a good (though not necessarily perfect) customer experience.
Similarly, in the relationship example, the couple could agree that the priority would be to have a comfortable sofa at home, not necessarily the highest quality. They may jointly decide to stay local instead of traveling for their annual vacation.
It is easier to move to the next step when both parties know they are heading in the same direction. Frame your argument in the context of the shared goal, and you may agree sooner.
Have Worthwhile Conversations
But not every disagreement needs to be talked about and resolved. While it can be fun to argue for the sake of pushing someone's buttons, be prepared that things could get unpleasant unnecessarily. The debate is worth having if:
All sides learn something about the other from the conversation;
The relationship grows from having the discussion; or
Positive action is taken towards achieving shared goals.
A quick litmus test to know whether you should have that conversation is when you find yourself stiffening up or walking on eggshells with the other person, and projects can't move forward.
It may be time to have a quiet tête-a- tête.