Learning to Appreciate Disagreement at Work

Learning to Appreciate Disagreement at Work-main

Recently I was conferring with  a client who said to me, “You don’t really like confrontation, do you?”

Well, no, I don’t. Like many people, I will do a lot to avoid confrontation of any sort.

In my youth I learned that if I couldn’t get what I needed by raw persuasion or simple niceness, I could negotiate or barter. Both of those are good, valuable skills, often in demand. But there are limitations to their effectiveness. Some of the best ideas result from the willingness to begin in a psychically painful place of conflict — those inherently confrontational points where what we know collides with what we don’t want to know.

So I often go out of my way to avoid disagreement, searching for the win-win that means no one has to feel like a loser. But the truth is that if no idea loses, no idea, including the best one, can win.

For our own good, that means we have to face off against our unwillingness to confront. We have to face off against the idea that simple disagreements are a zero-sum game, with a winner and a loser. How do we do that?

To start, we can draw some finer and more-nuanced distinctions. My daughter recently solicited my opinion on something. I gave it to her, and she immediately disagreed. “Why did you ask, if you weren’t going to listen?” I replied, using a favorite phrase of mothers everywhere. “I did listen,” she explained. “I just didn’t agree.” Such distinctions can help disagreement become less disagreeable.

In The Right Fight, Saj-nicole Joni offers a framework for deciding which disagreements can be productive. The criteria are that you’re fighting over something that genuinely matters, that it’s something one of the combatants has the power to change, and that you’re following clear rules of engagement. In these situations, entering the fray simply means that we care enough to risk the discomfort of conflict for the greater good.

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