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The Art of Disagreement

by Dale Eilerman
February 2007 Dale Eilerman

Most of us would likely say that we do not care to be around disagreeable people. This choice of behavior is typically discouraged in organizations as being disruptive and unsettling. It can generate negative emotional reactions and a sense that the disagreeable person is being uncooperative and is not “on board”. However the act of disagreeing is essential to identify problems, provide contrary perspectives, consider alternatives and make changes. What we need to recognize is that there is a skill and “art” in offering a disagreement that plays an important part in the success in taking this position. It is not what is said, but how it is said.

Michael A. Roberto speaks to the importance of disagreement in his book entitled Why Great Leaders Don’t Take Yes for an Answer (Wharton School Publishing, 2005). Roberto describes organizational cultures in which the prevailing norm is to have yes-people who outwardly agree with leadership and do not question decisions in open meetings. Differing opinions and beliefs are instead taken underground resulting in a hidden erosion of support and lost opportunities for considering viable alternatives. In some cases this type of culture has resulted in serious negative outcomes that could have been avoided if those in disagreement had felt like they could speak up and be heard without consequence.

Cultivating an environment that supports constructive disagreement requires encouragement of frank discussions, challenging questions and debate. This milieu results in decisions that are well thought out and earn the confidence and support of those who need to implement them.

What are some of the traits and techniques that contribute to the art of disagreement?

  • Demonstrate an attitude of inclusion
  • Use data and decision making procedures
  • Beware of emotional responses
  • Seek first to understand, then to be understood
  • Agree to disagree

Demonstrate an Attitude of Inclusion

Disagreement will begin to be valued when leaders demonstrate an attitude of inclusion. Openness to and active solicitation of differing ideas, perspectives, feelings, and beliefs generates greater breadth of thinking than a closed and conservative approach to decision making which tends to shut out diversity. The attitude of inclusion stimulates expression of disagreements and a collaborative discovery of solutions. This approach will increase the likelihood that optimal choices will be made.

Respect for disagreement encourages risk taking, creative thinking and consideration of alternatives that otherwise would not be put on the table. Leaders who challenge their associates to brain storm, critique, and think outside the box will maximize the potential that exists within the group. Appreciation shown for effort, and not just for the chosen decision, will further encourage people to take the risk of offering ideas and positions that might not otherwise be put out for consideration.

Use Data and Decision Making Procedures

It is helpful to have decision making procedures that facilitate the presentation of differing options while also maintaining an orderly process for reaching conclusions. Brainstorming, nominal group technique and multi-voting are methods that can be used to generate ideas and focus on preferred choices. If there is no structure to facilitate the decision making process the participants will experience frustration from “wheel spinning” and be less open to considering differing ideas.

Disagreements must merit the time and attention required for contemplation. Simply arguing for a personal agenda is not adequate. Those who want their perspective to be considered need to demonstrate its value with data or other supportive evidence and use the decision making process that is in place. Use of an organized presentation with handouts, charts, or other visual aids can be very effective in demonstrating a perspective that needs to win the approval of others. It may be helpful to pass alternatives through “filters” to assure that they meet the criteria required for consideration prior to presenting them. Disagreements that are obviously well thought out and rationally presented within organizational guidelines will be given more respectful consideration than those which are spontaneous and “off the cuff”.

When working to resolve disagreements determine if the differences are centered on the central goal or on the process for achieving the desired outcome. There will often be more receptivity to variations in process and procedures than to wholesale changes in the objective. Do proposals meet the identified goals and requirements? If yes, then disagreement may be in the area of process; how to reach the goal rather than the goal itself. Recognizing and communicating this distinction can keep the process moving along constructively.

Beware of Emotional Responses

Disagreements can cause emotional reactions that disrupt the objective assessment of an option being considered. Presentations that are overly dramatic may not be effective - the content can be lost in the expression. The idea will be judged on the listener’s affective reactions and not on merit.

However presentations without any emotion may be as ineffective as those with excessive emotion. Ideas communicated with feeling create energy. Emotions that are tempered and expressed for emphasis and effect can be a powerful enhancement in communicating the intensity of belief and conviction.

When presenting a different perspective it is important not to alienate others in the group. Separate the person from the problem. Statements that are confrontational, blaming and critical are usually not well received and can be harmful. Indicating a desire to collectively solve the problem at hand will be more effective than forming factions.

Being prepared and professional will increase the likelihood of receptivity to contrary opinions and perspectives. Conflict and disagreements that are cognitively presented with poise and confidence will be received best. Even skeptics are likely to consider ideas that are presented with logic, reason and conviction. Use of substantiated facts, relevant references, and evidence of success in other settings will help to change the minds of those who may initially be in opposition. The inclusion of enough emotion to demonstrate assurance that it will work in the current situation may be enough to tip the scales.

Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood

Stephen Covey’s maxim from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People of “Seek first to understand, and then to be understood” serves as a good technique when attempting to win over someone to a new way of thinking. If you want to be understood be a good listener. Once the other party believes that they have been thoroughly understood they will be more receptive to listening to alternative perspectives.

Listen intently and do not get caught up in formulating a response before the other party has finished their presentation. Use active listening and clarification questions to demonstrate interest and insight into the ideas of others. Active listening with focused eye contact, nodding, note taking, appropriate questions and summary statements for clarification will demonstrate interest and respect in those who present opposing viewpoints and thereby increase their receptivity to alternative positions.

A good technique for presenting disagreement is to both support and confront. This involves the use of the word “and” instead of the word “but”. An example would be to say “I understand what you are suggesting and I have another point of view” rather than “I understand what you are suggesting but I want you to listen to my idea.” The use of the word “but” erases everything that was presented before it and only includes the words that follow it. Use of the word “and” shows respect and consideration for one point of view while adding other thoughts or opinions. A difference that is presented with respect and as an alternative will be received better than one that shows distain and one-sided thinking.

Agree to Disagree

Attempt to join in agreement with the prevailing position as much as possible. This is especially true when disagreeing with a person or group who is in a position of influence. Artful disagreement will often include reference and support for the areas where there is agreement and then requests for considering additional perspectives. Respectful acknowledgement that there are points in common will reduce the level of resistance to hearing new ideas.

However there will be times when presenting a disagreement will not result in the idea being accepted. When other ideas win out it is important to support the decision and work to make it effective. The welfare of the team or organization is more important than individual goals. Sometimes it is best to agree to disagree and move on.

Summary

Disagreement, when demonstrated effectively, can be a valuable component of effective organizations. The art of disagreement is often not in what is said, but how it is said. Presenting opposing positions successfully may require courage driven by conviction and supported by data. It is important to keep differences constructive and to work for collaborative discovery of solutions. When presented well, disagreement opens the door to consideration of options that can result in integrated decision making and optimal outcomes.

Biography


Dale Eilerman operates Conflict Solutions Ohio, LLC working with individuals and organizations to improve relationships and performance.  He specializes in the dynamics associated with conflict management and provides clinical counseling, coaching, consultation, training, team-building, and conciliation work including mediation.  Dale is a licensed clinical counselor and is the Director of Organizational Learning for a behavioral health organization in Dayton, Ohio.  He is also a part-time instructor at the University of Dayton and Wright State University.    Dale can be contacted at 937.219.4996 or dale@conflictsolutionsohio.com.



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