DISAGREEMENTS ARE PART of everyday work life. In an ideal world they should be welcomed, seen as healthy and positive with the opportunity of leading to better decisions.
But the reality in business is that many disagreements do not result in positive outcomes.
Instead, frustration, damaged relationships, grudge-holding and poor decision-making are frequently the result. Often, the very fear of generating such negativity prevent disagreements from surfacing, resulting in people just ‘going along’, while harbouring resentment about doing so.
The problem is a people problem — the very act of being human. Even if the substantive issues of disagreements are how to run a project, whether to do a product launch now or next quarter, whether to manage a deal this way or that, the ancillary parallel problem is that we are people first with fragile egos and unruly emotions.
We all have a naive belief that we see the world as it really is. We further believe facts are there for all to see and so, if someone does not agree with us, it’s because they haven’t yet been exposed to these facts or they have been blinded by their interests.
It’s a variant of the ‘Fundamental Attribution Error’, which is best explained by the question — have you ever noticed that everyone driving slower than you is an idiot, while everyone driving faster is a maniac?
We see others’ faults as character flaws, but when we engage in the same behaviour ourselves, we either have a good reason — which they of course didn’t have — or it’s the situation that caused us to behave this way.
The psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls this our ‘inner lawyer’. We decide on our position and our inner lawyer supplies us with the rationale. Simply put, we can do whatever we want and find a way to justify our actions.
If you want to minimise the error in your argument, deliberately seek out the evidence against your point of view.
Think of a recent conflict you had and find one way your behaviour was not exemplary. Maybe you did something insensitive or inconsistent with your principles. When you catch sight of a fault in yourself, your inner lawyer will rush to your defence — don’t listen and continue the exercise.
When we are clear in our own minds, Dale Carnegie’s human relations principles can contribute to a successful outcome. I’ve chosen five tips from How to Win Friends and Influence People that our clients tell us help them deal with conflict:
See things from the opposite point of view
Ask yourself, ‘What would the world look like to me if I was in their shoes? How would I justify my position if I was them? Is there anything I have done, or said that has contributed to that misperception?’
Understand their interests
You need to understand their interests, and that is not going to happen if we focus on positions. What lies behind their positions? Why do they have that position?
Get them to say ‘yes’ immediately
Identify a common ground before proceeding. If you build a mutual understanding, you have the basis of moving forward. Jointly address the problem by metaphorically sitting at the same side of the table and working together on the issues that need to be resolved.
Never say ‘you’re wrong’
Even if you are convinced of being right, telling the other person that they are wrong is a very bad tactic. This is risking the involvement of their ego and they may find it impossible to back down without losing face.
If someone hits you with an opinion you disagree with, firstly use a ‘cushion’ to acknowledge the other person’s viewpoint. This is a neutral statement that neither agrees or disagrees; it simply acknowledges the other person’s opinion. Then ask questions or introduce appropriate evidence, which leads to a conclusion.
Let’s say a salesperson hears a customer angrily say something like, “I looked over your proposal and the cost is way more than what I expected. What are you trying to do, fleece me?”
A cushion may be, “Up-front investment always has to be considered very seriously. We have now completed more than half a dozen of these installations and seen that the payback period is on average 18 months, and after that period, the additional revenue generation is significant.
“This leads us to believe that the payoff is sufficiently significant and low risk that the up-front investment is worth it and is a wise decision.”
The purpose of this approach is not to ‘win’. The purpose is to keep the channels of communication open, and if we can do that while expressing our opinion, we have a much better chance of reaching an agreement.
It’s important that the evidence is presented first. If the issue already has emotions bubbling, stating opinions won’t work because emotionally the other person will not even hear the evidence.
Try this as a discipline for yourself. The next time someone asks, “What do you think of …”, begin your response with evidence to support your opinion and then deliver your opinion as a conclusion.
Then when you find yourself in a contentious situation, the only extra to add is the cushion — you will find it’s possible to disagree without being disagreeable.
Walter Bradley is managing director of Dale Carnegie Ireland. He will give a workshop on ‘How to Agreeably Disagree’ at the Ireland Chapter of Project Management Institute’s national conference on 28 February at Fota Island Resort, Cork.