When a disagreement in front of others gets difficult, there’s a simple remedy for avoiding two common pitfalls such conversations bring with them.
Disagreements that unfold in front of others — at team meetings, at the family holiday gathering, even while queuing up to check out at the green grocer — automatically get more complicated than private disagreements simply due to their “public” nature.
That’s because when we disagree in front of others, we’re adding two additional layers to the conversation:
The performance layer
When we disagree in front of others, we naturally want to perform well for others who are watching. “Well,” of course, can mean many things and some of them aren’t very helpful to sorting out the actual disagreement.
Maybe we want to show whoever is watching that we’re smarter than our sparring partner. Or faster on our feet. Or that we’re no pushover. Perhaps we want someone watching to see how unreasonable the other person is. Agendas like these may not even be conscious.
Collectively, subconscious or deliberate goals like these are about social status — our natural desire to assert, maintain, or improve our perceived position in the pair or group. While a natural motivator of human behavior, jockeying for status complicates disagreement.
Researchers William Donohue and Paul Taylor found, for instance, that when a person feels “one-down” in a negotiation, they are more likely to use aggressive tactics that are less effective for reaching their desired outcomes.
The face layer
Our natural desire to preserve our social status is closely related to our natural desire to save face.
“Face” is the public image we want to project and maintain in our interactions — how we see ourselves in the world and wish others to see us. When we experience damage to our public image, we “lose face.” When we prevent damage or mitigate its effects, we “save face.” When we help someone else maintain the public image they wish to project, we “give face.”
So, when we pursue a difficult conversation while others are watching, we add the complication of face to our interaction. The desire to save face is there whether or not others observing the interaction, of course, but we must now attempt to save face or regain face not only with our sparring partner, but also with each individual observing.
Comedian Steven Wright once said, “Isn’t the best way to save face to keep the lower part shut?” This is, of course, so very difficult when we’re in the dance of conflict while others watch our dance moves.
Take it offline
So, one very effective and straightforward way to have a better disagreement is to take the “public” elements out of it whenever possible — known informally as “taking it offline.”
“Take it offline” means to move a conversation to a space where it can unfold privately and probably more productively. If you’re online, “take it offline” means to talk in person. If you’re disagreeing in person as part of a group or in front of others, it means to find a place or time to talk away from the others.
For team leaders and managers, it can be helpful to introduce the “take it offline” idea to your group and make it a normalized part of team discussions. The idea isn’t to use it punitively, but to give people encouragement and permission to “take it offline” when a disagreement merits more time to be sorted out yet doesn’t require the entire team’s involvement.
Is offline always better?
There is no always or never with human behavior. We are complicated critters.
Sometimes, someone’s willingness to maintain a calm facade is aided by the presence of others — the desire to demonstrate conflict competence can be a strong motivator for effective behavior, particularly in the workplace. It seems pretty reasonable to continue the discussion in front of others if the presence of those others seems to help someone be a more effective conversation partner.
But be vigilant. If you realize you’re saying or doing certain things for the benefit of others watching, or if you think the other person is, then performance and status elements are starting to seep into the conversation. If you start to feel one-down or backed into a corner (or tempted to back them into a corner), it’s time to take it offline.