4 Handy Principles for Deciding When You Can’t Agree

Conflict Zen Blog by Tammy Lenski

Sometimes more conversation doesn’t yield better conflict resolution results. When conflict conversations go long and you still can’t agree, continuing the debate can end up breeding greater frustration than some disagreements are worth.

Having a fallback principle can rescue your day (not to mention your business or personal relationship). A principle is a rule you can apply in order to choose among the options.

Consider the following fallback principles just a starting place. Use them as is or as seeds for developing your own fallback principles.

Principle 1: Who cares most

This one comes from Basecamp co-founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, known for the elegant simplicity of their software.

Hansson says this about the “who cares most” principle: “When we go into a disagreement, sometimes the heat can get pretty hot, but usually there’s one person who cares more than the other person…We’ve just set up a give-and-take system where whoever cares most if the discussion goes long, wins.”

Principle 2: Whose reputation will be on the line

This principle gives decision-making power to the person whose job, authority, image, or standing in the team / organization / family / community will be most jeopardized if something goes wrong.

Sometimes that stakeholder will be a party to the disagreement. Sometimes they’re outside the conversation, perhaps even unaware it’s going on. Good decisions should involve the key stakeholders.

A variation of this principle is: Who stands to lose the most if the decision goes bad.

Principle 3: What you would tell a best friend to do

This one comes from brothers Chip and Dan Heath in their bestselling book, Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work.

The “best friend” principle helps you zero in on the most important factor in a decision instead of flitting among multiple variables.

Say the Heaths, “When we think of our friends, we see the forest. When we think of ourselves, we get stuck in the trees…The two of us have talked to many people about thorny personal or professional decisions they were facing, and often they seemed flummoxed about the right thing to do. Then we’d ask them the ‘best friend’ question, and almost always–often within a matter of seconds!–they’d come up with a clear answer. Usually, they were a bit surprised by their own clarity. When we’d ask, ‘Do you think maybe you should take your own advice?’ they’d admit, ‘Yes, I guess I should.’”

Now, this one can be mis-used when you apply it in times you can’t agree with someone. The idea here isn’t to use the principle simply as an argument for your own case. What, you must each ask yourselves, would you really tell your best friend is the best option here?

Principle 4: Who will do the work

This one also comes from Basecamp’s Fried and Hansson.

When one of them has a strong opinion about how something should be done, but the other person is the one who will actually do the work, the one who will implement it gets the advantage.

Says Hansson, “It doesn’t mean he’s always right, it doesn’t mean we’ll always go that way, but I’ll concede the point more often than not when it falls into his specific wheelhouse…We have a great mutual respect for the expertise that each of us holds.”

Note that this principle is subtly but importantly different than, “Who is the bigger expert.” By framing it as “who will do the bulk of the work,” they sidestep the dicey issue of who knows more, which could end up creating even more tension. And, of course, while it’s tempting to think of the expert as the one who should choose, expertise can blind you to something fresh eyes can see.

Using the principles

Here are a few tips for getting the most out fallback principles when you can’t agree:

  1. Whenever possible, decide in advance which principle(s) you will turn to when you’re stuck. This is called having a “meta conversation,” a conversation about a conversation. It’s tempting just to skip the work of this, but be forewarned: When you’re frustrated and stuck is not the time to try to reach agreement about how you’ll get out of being frustrated and stuck.
  2. Don’t keep tabs on who’s conceded more often. Unless the ratio is wildly out of whack, keeping tabs becomes just another thing to fight about. If you start using one or more of these principles and discover the ratio is wildly out of whack, there’s really good insight for you there. Figure out why and you’ll likely discover something useful.
  3. If one principle doesn’t help, use another. For example, if you try to apply the “Who will do the work” principle and there’s overlap, turn to another principle.
  4. For really quick and relatively unimportant decisions, there’s always rock paper scissors. Life’s short, you know?

rock paper scissors parking


Tammy Lenski

Dr. Tammy Lenski helps individuals, pairs, teams, and audiences navigate disagreement better, address friction, and build alignment. Her current work centers on creating the conditions for robust collaboration and sound decisions while fostering resilient personal and professional relationships. Her conflict resolution podcast and blog, Disagree Better, are available at https://tammylenski.com/archives/… MORE >

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