Sound decisions, healthy team dynamics, and resilient personal and professional relationships don’t require or even particularly benefit from an absence of conflict. When there’s conflict and tension, the goal isn’t to abolish it, but to navigate it in ways that prevent damage and inspire deeper consideration of solutions. The goal is to disagree better.
What does it mean to disagree better?
Healthy, resilient and fulfilling personal and professional relationships have conflict — sometimes a lot of it. How you navigate the conflict and what you do to nourish the relationship in general matter at least as much as, and perhaps more than, the amount or degree of conflict.
For instance, couples can have big fights, frequent conflict, and even bicker all the time and still have healthy, fulfilling, and lasting relationships. Whether or not you’re willing to accept that degree of discord in your own relationships, the point is that discord by itself does not determine if a relationship can thrive. What does? Research points to factors that contribute to better disagreements — factors like feeling understood by your partner and refraining from self-immersive behavior after a fight (self-immersion is the act of dwelling on hurt and angry feelings).
Similarly, robust disagreement is a hallmark of many successful, collaborative workplace teams. How do you prevent conflict from damaging team dynamics and interfering with good decision-making? Research points to factors that contribute to disagreeing better — factors like responding effectively to a co-worker’s anger, promoting forgiveness in the workplace, and negotiating well with colleagues.
These examples all underscore the idea that if you want to turn a difficult conversation into a more rewarding one, it’s less effective to try changing who they are (good luck with that) or tamping down unpleasant disagreement than it is to change your approach to the conversation.
To sort out what you disagree about, change how you’re disagreeing.CLICK TO TWEET
This is one reason for the existence of facilitators and mediators — we know how to help people change the way they’re approaching the conversation or problem to get better results.
In most situations, of course, you don’t need a mediator or a meeting facilitator from outside. To disagree better, you can make your own adjustments. Here’s one way to figure out where to adjust.
Four dimensions influence every conversation
I’ve found there are four parts of a conversation — I call them dimensions — that play an important role in building better disagreements:
- Communication — how you express yourself and exchange information
- Mental models — how you make sense of things
- Self-mastery — how you handle yourself under pressure
- Process — how you structure the conversation
Put another way, there are four good ways to disagree better:
- Improve communication
- Notice the mental models that inform your thinking, and avoid cognitive traps
- Hone your ability to stay calm and mentally agile during tension
- Organize the conversation differently
When conversations get difficult, one or more of the four dimensions usually needs attention.
These are not sequential; I number them only for easier reference. They’re also not isolated from each other; in fact, they influence each other. For instance, how you think about a problem or a person influences how you handle yourself during tension with them, and how calm you are influences how you communicate.
Let’s look closely at each dimension and how to use it for insight into conversations you lead or participate in:
Disagree better dimension 1: Communication
How we express ourselves and exchange information
It’s common to hear conflict and disagreement blamed on communication problems. While communication is not at the root of all conflict, the attribution is popular because communication does often play a vital role.
Elements of effective communication at work and home include:
- Good listening habits
- Attentive word choice
- Framing good questions
- Awareness of non-verbals, including body language, eye contact, and tone of voice
- Giving full attention to others
Pro tip: The above list isn’t comprehensive. I’ve focused on the communication skills and habits that get a lot of mileage for us in ongoing personal and professional relationships. If your particular circumstances benefit from a communication skill that isn’t listed above, do include that skill in your exploration.
Exploring the communication dimension to disagree better
To build better disagreements, use questions like these to strengthen the communication elements of your personal, workplace, and team conversations:
- How can we strengthen the way we talk when there’s disagreement?
- What could help us be better listeners?
- Do we acknowledge and try hard to understand each other, even when we still disagree?
- Do we use questions more to trap, manipulate, and express judgment, or more to gain insight and understanding?
- How can we avoid the spiral of silence?
- Am I modeling good attentiveness to others when conversations get difficult (instead of checking email, texting, and other forms of multitasking)?
Disagree better dimension 2: Mental models
How we make sense of things
We use mental models to make sense of our world and experiences. Mental models are the beliefs, frameworks, mental images, and generalizations we use to understand and explain what’s happening. The way we think about people and problems has an important impact on how effectively we solve problems, resolve conflict, and make good decisions.
Using mental models is such an innate experience that we may not even be aware of the models we’re using. Do you believe that to win a negotiation you have to get more and the other person get less? That’s a compromise mental model. Have you mentally placed your nemesis in a personality category, such as “bully” or “difficult person”? That could be helpful if your diagnosis turns out to be accurate, and it can also cause a category error, a type of thinking error that can make things worse.
Mental models aren’t “wrong” or “right.” A mental model that’s helpful in one circumstance can be ineffective in another. And unexamined mental models can seriously limit our problem-solving prowess, send us down blind alleys, and cause us to escalate conflict. Common “thinking errors,” such as the sunk cost fallacy and confirmation bias, can lead us to poor decisions.
So one way to disagree better is to examine our mental models and make sure we’re applying models that are useful to our present circumstances. Put simplistically, to disagree better, we need to think better.
Teams can examine the mental models they’re using to make an important decision. Business partners, co-workers, and couples can discuss what presses their buttons, mental models about the way they want to be seen by others. Individuals can reflect privately about the mental models that inform their thinking, actions, and decisions.
Exploring mental models in order to disagree better
To build better disagreements, use questions like these to uncover limiting mental models and cognitive traps that are influencing your problem-solving conversations:
- What beliefs or assumptions (about the problem, each other, the situation, culture, etc) are we each making?
- Have we expressed and discussed those “pictures in our heads”?
- How are our private characterizations of anyone involved (“angry,” “manipulative,” “freight train,” “passive-aggressive,” “wimp,” “bully,” etc) playing a role in how we’re solving the problem? If we could pretend, for just a few minutes, that our characterization is completely wrong, how might we view the problem differently?
- How is our area of expertise (engineering, social work, law, dog training, homemaking, etc) informing our mental models? How is it contributing to our blind spots?
Disagree better dimension 3: Self-mastery
How we stay centered under pressure
The best conflict resolution and communication skills in the world are little use if we can’t access them when we need them most. Self-mastery is about being able to choose our responses rather than reacting automatically in ways that may not serve our best interests in the long and/or short run.
Elements of self-mastery that serve us well in ongoing personal and professional relationships include:
- Maintaining equilibrium in the face of stressful interactions or circumstances
- The ability to think clearly under stress
- The ability to respond nimbly and communicate well during tension
- Awareness of triggers and how to mitigate them
- Choosing behavior strategically instead of reactively
Exploring the self-mastery dimension to disagree better
To build better disagreements, use questions like these to strengthen the self-mastery elements of your workplace and family conversations:
- What could improve our interpersonal dynamics? (Pro tip: What gets in someone else’s way may not bother you — but don’t discount it.)
- What kinds of words or circumstances tend to throw us off balance, individually or as a pair/group?
- What can we individually do to support each others’ equilibrium when conversation gets difficult?
- What can we each do to keep our own balance when conversation gets difficult?
- How can we strike the right balance between being honest and direct, and being fair and considerate?
Disagree better dimension 4: Process
How we orchestrate the conversation
The success of a difficult conversation isn’t dependent solely on what happens during the conversation. The way we set the stage beforehand, and then begin the conversation, can play an important role in effective results.
Most of our conversations unfold organically, without much thought to structure or sequence. That works just fine almost all the time. When conversations get difficult, however, process pitfalls tend to make things harder.
Good problem-solving process is like a road map — it orients us to where we are and how we’ll know when we’ve arrived at a destination. We may not need a road map to go to our local green grocer, but if we’re driving into unfamiliar territory to visit a different one for the first time, even the simplest of road maps can save us hours of frustration.
Good problem-solving processes have hallmarks such as these:
- Effectively framing the problem to be solved (Pro tip: When problems get stuck, one reason is that the problem hasn’t been properly or sufficiently named. Another reason is that people are often solving different problems, figuratively going down different train tracks)
- Attention to time and place for discussion
- Spending quality time and attention to understand the problem fully
- Generating and considering multiple options before selecting
- Commitment to including stakeholders’ opinions and preferences
- Using decision-making methods appropriate to the setting and circumstances
Exploring the process dimension to disagree better
To disagree better, use questions like these to draw a clearer road map for your difficult conversations:
- What is the problem we’re trying to solve? If we each were to name out loud the meaningful problem we are trying to solve together, would we be on the same page? (Pro tip: Go ahead and do this; don’t guess.)
- Can we each identify the general process we’re using to talk through and address the problem? Do our approaches generally align?
- Do we hurry through or avoid parts of the problem that feel uncomfortable to discuss? (Pro tip: Don’t hurry through the Groan Zone.)
- How will we decide? Will our usual decision method serve us well in this situation?
Putting it all together (without getting overwhelmed)
There are two primary ways to use the questions I outlined above: (1) Use them prospectively to improve future conversations, and/or (2) Use them retrospectively to understand why a conversation went sour.
Using the 4 dimensions prospectively
When an important conversation is coming up, it can be useful to consider the ways you can maximize your effort. You can use the 4 dimensions to:
- Consider your pair’s, group’s or team’s conversational strengths and growing edges — which dimensions are likely to be strong and which may need your special effort or attention?
- Consider your own strengths and growing edges as a leader, facilitator, mediator or partner — which dimensions do you typically handle well and which do you want to fine-tune?
Using the 4 dimensions retrospectively
When you look back at a conversation that went sour, you will usually notice that 1-2 of the dimensions have stronger influence than others on the way your conversation unfolds. These are the dimensions to address.
Pro tip: When you look hard at any conversation, you can usually identify problems in every dimension. Don’t let this cause you to throw up your hands in despair. Focusing on 1-2 dimensions that stand out most strongly will often provide you with rewarding results.
For the dimension(s) you identify has having the biggest impact:
- How can we improve the problems identified in that dimension?
- What elements in that dimension would benefit from discussion by those involved (workplace team, family, clients, etc)?
- What elements in that dimension might benefit from private discussion with an individual?
- What will you yourself do differently? (Pro tip: Don’t skip this one!)
And a last pro tip: Don’t use this guide to judge them, then announce their flaws. Instead, give them a copy and invite their own reflections. If they see things differently, recognize that you each hold a bit of the truth.
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