Have the Courage to Disagree

The biggest cause of relationship tension and conflict—at work and elsewhere–is disagreement. But staying silent, giving in to groupthink, not fighting for what you need, or not speaking up for what you know is right also has costs.

“When two people always agree, one of them is unnecessary,” as William Wrigley, of chewing gum fame, so eloquently put it.

courage to disagreeIt might seem as if we must make a choice: rock the boat by expressing an unpopular opinion with brutal honesty versus be polite and make others happy by going with the flow. What if you didn’t have to make that choice and could present an alternative viewpoint with tact and compassion?

Interpersonal conflict arises not just from the disagreement itself, but how that disagreement is expressed and how people react when others disagree with them about an important issue they care about. A key skill of successful leaders, top performers, and the most influential people is the ability to disagree without being disagreeable. Here’s how to do that:

Gather Data

Start by asking questions. Often in a disagreement, people are working with different data points, anecdotes, and assumptions. On any given topic, every person knows something different—either because of their role or their past experience. Have an open discussion with one goal and one goal only–try to find out what piece of information, what story, or what belief system is causing the disagreement.

In a one-on-one conversation, take turns sharing your perspectives without attempting to influence the other. In a group setting, too often it happens that only those in power or those with loud voices make their story, their information, and their beliefs heard and circulated. Take extra steps to ask opinions from the quiet ones, or the ones with least authority or expertise on the topic, first.

Assess Motives

At different points in the discussion, circle back and review what you are trying to accomplish, collectively and individually. As emotions escalate, competitive mentalities can take over, and eventually the conflict can get so out of hand that the original goal becomes lost.

Focus on You

Keep in mind you can only change your own behavior. A common mistake made during a conflict is thinking along the lines of, “if I can get the other person to do this, think like that, it will solve our problem.” If you find yourself wondering how you can change someone’s mind, their opinion, or their behavior, shift that around and instead ask yourself what you can do, what actions you can take, to better the situation.

Support the Decision

Once a decision has been reached, continued discussion becomes unproductive and any arguing and dissent needs to stop. At this point, your obligation is to support your team, your manager, and your organization in that decision—whether you initially supported that decision or not.

Eva Rykrsmith

Eva Rykrsmith is an organizational psychology practitioner. Her passion lies in bringing a psychology perspective to the business world, with the mission of creating a high-performance environment. Follow her @EvaRykr.

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