“Recognize the strengths of the other guy’s argument and the weaknesses of your own. Keep an open mind while listening.”
Jake Sullivan, Yale University, Policy Assistant to H. R. Clinton, Charlie Rose interview, 8/24/17
Most work gets done in groups lately, and when you put more than one person in the room, there’s bound to be a disagreement no matter how well people generally get along. In fact, even with just one person in the room there can be a disagreement. I argue with myself all the time.
Learning to disagree effectively, which means being sure to maintain an environment in which the disagreement doesn’t stop the work or damage relationships permanently, can be difficult, so here’s one suggestion for learning to disagree: Practice.
I know that sounds odd, but you have to disagree on something sooner or later, so make use of the opportunity. Before you tackle disagreeing with another division or department, or in an important committee, disagree among yourselves and see if you can track what generates the most -- or the most intense -- disagreements.
Practice within your own group with a no-fault policy for making an error and leaving the disagreement in worse shape than before you started. Start with a topic unrelated to the group’s work but with which everyone is familiar, maybe a recent film, announce that this is a practice session, and see what happens. Then debrief the disagreement and see what new information develops. Are there topics that always result in strong disagreements or trigger strong emotions? Is there a personal dispute between two people that generates disagreement no matter what the topic? Are there different styles of disagreement that frustrate some members of the team? How can you improve your tactics for disagreeing?
Start the practice by listening. Too often we are not listening; we are simply waiting our turn, plotting how we will demolish the other person’s argument. With all those words forming our own inner arguments, we might hear words, but we won't hear meaning.
In particular, learn to evaluate other perspectives and to rebut an argument with a logical and persuasive counter-argument. Don’t allow yourself to be goaded into reacting unprofessionally or inappropriately in any way, stay calm, disconnect with the urge to punch someone (or even roll your eyes), and listen for why this is important. Then make a stronger argument. You really can change people’s minds with logic. That actually happened to me recently, and it didn't feel bad at all.
Another way to practice is to take the opposite position and argue in its favor. By being required to find the positive arguments, even if you don’t agree with them, you find the “strengths in the other guy’s argument,” and more importantly, “the weaknesses in our own.” All too often we listen only for flaws or for what we can discount, but when we listen for the strengths in the other argument, we truly focus on the other person and begin to understand, not just hear.
Unless we have found validity in the opposing argument, we haven’t really listened at all.
Have an absolutely wonderful and peaceful week.