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The Art of Disagreement

In a complex world, we seek to simplify. Too much information, too many decisions, too fast-paced. Over the years, we learn to form opinions quickly, make decisions and move on. This would be fine if we all had the same opinions, but we don’t. Of course we don’t, and even though that might make things easier, that would not be a better world.

If only we could master the art of disagreement, allow for it and let it make us more noble. It’s what the ancient Greeks had in mind. It’s what our founding fathers had in mind. This might just be our final frontier. It surely is what can destroy us, but if we can master this conundrum, our future looks more hopeful. This is true in our daily lives as well as globally. The typical responses to disagreement cover the entire spectrum from capitulating to all out war and everything in-between. We haven’t had very good role models either. Watch the political news commentators on television for two minutes to see how low we can go. We somehow think it’s appropriate to disagree loudly, get personal, use spurious arguments, ignore data, not listen, take extreme positions, not really solve, just attack, etc., etc. In the workplace, we are more “respectful” or perhaps polite, but not really much better.

In work environments, we are all using more participative processes–no longer the top down model. We have been asking people to weigh in, making sure they have a voice and that they stay engaged. The new business model is MORE collaboration. In this model, we need disagreement or we will surely land in permanent groupthink. But in 30 years of working with organizations, I have rarely seen a group that knows how to effectively leverage disagreement.

Part of the problem is that every difference of opinion also comes with it the subtle dimension of “relationship.” This is the level where it becomes painful, because some care more about this than others. Even agreeing to disagree often comes with relationship damage. This becomes more problematic when the issue is of significant importance to us. If it is an issue that matters to us very much, we have a small latitude of acceptance when it comes to the variations we will tolerate and relationships be damned. If it is just “sort of” important to us, we have a wider range of various opinions we can tolerate along with the people who have them.


Flawed Ways of Handling Disagreement

The typical “disagreement” scenario. We use a group activity where people are asked to make a decision in a short amount of time with limited information. It is meant to simulate real life so we can examine the typical behavior under these circumstances. We have been using this activity for many years and, interestingly enough, it always turns out the same.

We first tell them the situation and the details that are known. We then give them the three options for how it can turn out. In any group of 30 or more, there will always be representatives for each option. The groups are not often the same size, but there will always be three groups.

The next step is to get the like-minded people together to discuss their choice and to pick a spokesperson to discuss their position with the other groups with the sole purpose of trying to change the other minds and to get them to join their group.

As you can probably imagine, no one ever changes groups. Of course, it has to do with the way we set up the activity, but we are simulating real life. Here are some of the problems:

Opinions are requested too early in the game. We ask the people to form an opinion before they have even had a chance to ask questions or discuss with each other. Oddly enough, no one has ever pushed back on this. They just decide on the spot.

Remembering only confirming data. When it comes to examining or using the available data to back up the opinion, people only use the data that support their opinion. All other data has now been forgotten, ignored, or determined to be irrelevant or not true.

Belonging to a group. Another reason no one changes his or her mind is because they now belong to a “group.” Defecting from one’s “group” is often a permanent decision even when it is not meant to be. Do you have any idea how lonely the “walk” is from one group to the other? What does the group you left think of you? You traitor, you Judas. What does the group you are joining think of you? Hmmm, he left them, he has loyalty problems or else he’s a wishy washy wimp. You may be the only rational, open-minded person in the room, but you are now a person without a group–totally alone. Human beings are social animals, we hate isolation.

Persuasion. But at this point, no one has opened their mouths yet. We haven’t even tried to resolve our disagreement through the one thing (besides our opposing thumbs) that makes us higher level creatures: using complex verbal symbols to build a bridge of meaning, perhaps even understanding, between ourselves and others.

This, of course, is the last straw. When the spokesperson stands up to discuss his group’s opinion, he uses the old model of “debate.” Here is why our opinion is right and yours is wrong. When was the last time that strategy worked on you? The ancient Greeks never meant for us to be using that model directly on each other. We were supposed to be using higher level influence skills first, then if we did not have enough agreement, we could use negotiation. The debate model was only meant to be used when the disagreeing parties had tried all of the other more noble means of communication and could still not find any agreement, they would take it to a judge and use the “debate” model. Present opposing points of view and let the third party decide which was the better argument. It does not work for solving disagreement directly with one another, it only pushes people further away. The further apart people are in their opinions, the more righteous they are and the more righteous we are, the more dogmatic and closed minded.


What to Do Differently

Higher Level Skills. None of the above conditions are healthy for incubating a new, perhaps creative solution that can be both/and instead of either/or. This model of “let’s debate each other and become more entrenched in our differing opinions” way of resolving disagreement usually ends in a lose-lose outcome and a damaged relationship going forward. The good news is it only takes one of the parties to break the loop. Here are some steps to take to avoid this pitfall:

  1. Delay your position. Hold off having an opinion about an issue for as long as you can.
  2. Gather DIS-confirming data with an eye toward changing your own mind.
  3. Give up the need for others to agree with you on every point you make.
  4. Look for common ground. There is almost always common ground. It can serve as a solid foundation on which to arrive at a mutually agreeable outcome.
  5. Be a learner. Tolerate confusion. It isn’t that bad to not know stuff. Ask a lot of questions. He who asks, learns.
  6. Be a teacher. Listen with an open mind. I once heard this quote (not sure of the source) “A great teacher is one who can explain well to people who have difficulty understanding and who can understand those who have difficulty explaining.”

Today’s leaders do not have to have all of the answers. We have to have the questions and an open mind to listen with objectivity.

Margaret Wheatley wrote a wonderful book called Turning to One Another. What a great concept. We have, unfortunately, become a nation of turning on each other–at home, in the workplace, in our communities.

There is an answer here, but we have to break some old patterns. It will be harder because we can’t just default back to our habits. We have to consciously, intentionally think about how we interact. It will take some vigilance because, to paraphrase an old quote: “War is easy because peace is hard.”


Author: Laree Kiely, Ph.D., President, the Kiely Group. Dr Kiely served on the faculty at USC for more than 15 years. In addition to currently leading the Kiely Group, she serves as faculty for leadership programs at Duke CE, UCLA, USC, Thunderbird and Ivey (Toronto). The Kiely Group specializes in Leadership and Organizational Impact. Please send your comments, questions, and stories to us at: [email protected]


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