Managing disagreements in the work place is a common challenge. And yet, whatever size of business you work in, there is an expectation that everyone rubs along reasonably well. This is a weird disconnect in my view; after all, family units are prone to regular spats so why on earth should we expect teams of people – often big ones – to work any better?
I believe in the principle of ‘healthy disagreement’. In other words, the sooner we embrace the concept that there are people out there with opposing views, the better. This feels particularly pertinent in the week following the election campaign, which must have spawned thousands of disagreements over policy and rhetoric in homes and offices all over the country. We thought it would be timely to share a few ideas on how to resolve or manage conflict.
How to have healthy disagreements – eight tips:
- Attack the issue, not the person: Start by using the word “I” instead of “You”. “I disagree” states your position on the issue whereas “you’re wrong” attacks the person.
- Look for solutions not blame: Finger-pointing in a difficult situation, may take the focus away from your part in a problem, but does not solve it. Problems happen. Assigning blame actually may give you a reason for the breakdown, but it does not produce results. Acknowledge the problem and work towards a solution and strategies to prevent a reoccurrence.
- Lose the word “BUT”: Every time a disagreement flairs up, you can bet that “but” is the conjunction that is most used. “I hear what you are saying, but what about….” Sends the message that you didn’t hear what the other person was saying at all; you just wanted to get a chance to state your opinion. Set up your team to role play arguments and count the “buts”. Then set the challenge to role play the same argument with “but” substituted with “and”. Make a game of it with teams earning points for “and” and losing points for “but”. Ask your teams to analyse the emotional difference between the two arguments.
- Other words you “should/have to/must” stop using: “You should…” “You have to…” “You must….” set a verbal groundwork for resentment and conflict. Just reading the subheading to this section feels like an attack. If you want your team to work well, turning difficult situations into opportunities to coach rather than command is a key skill to develop. Negotiations fail where there is not a perception of equality, so even if you outrank another person, having a discussion on a perceived equal footing of courtesy makes it all a lot easier.
- Listen and report: Being interrupted before one has finished speaking is very annoying. It may be entertaining to watch MPs heckling the Prime Minister relentlessly during Prime Minister’s Questions but it doesn’t cut it in the work place! Give your ‘opponent’ the opportunity to state their case in full and they will be more likely to give you a chance to state your position.
- Take notes: Making notes helps if you are disagreeing with someone who switches position in mid argument for the sake of winning. It also helps to keep tempers in check. Being on the record is a much more serious proposition than being able to go on a verbal rant without it.
- Pick your battles: Before launching into a disagreement, assess the situation. Is it a one-off trivial irritation or is it a result of entrenched behavior? If you confront the situation will it provide you with a short-term win but a long-term loss because you have eroded a relationship? Is there a way of dealing with the problem through collaboration instead of conflict? If you don’t deal with it, will it become a problem later on?
- The pen is mightier than the verbal sword fight: Before dealing with a conflict, commit your thoughts to paper then read it back. Are you attacking the issue? Are you looking for solutions? Are you using but/should/must/have to? Is this a reasonable battle? Writing helps you to get the angry words out of your head and onto paper where it is easier to pick them apart. If you have done all of the above and still want to go on, then use your notes as a script to work off. It helps if you are one of those people who gets flustered under stress. Sticking to considered points on your paper also helps to stay focused on the issue and not get sidetracked into damaging name-calling and finger pointing.
In short, managing conflict is a skill that needs to be considered, nurtured and practiced. After all, in any environment where a lot of people with different ideas are working towards the same goal, there are bound to be disagreements. In fact, if there are never any disagreements, you need to ask yourself why everyone is so compliant or whether you have a strong enough team. Lack of healthy disagreement might be a warning sign that there is something wrong, but that is a discussion for another day.