Be reasonable. Do it my way.

I laugh when I see a bumper sticker with this message. True, if everyone did do things my way, there would never be disagreements. But that wish doesn’t reflect reality. In fact, you’re in rare company if you’ve never had a disagreement at work. You might be tempted to view disagreements as undesirable. However, handled properly, disagreements often can lead to productive gains and unexpected solutions. Here are some tips to make sure disagreements stay under control.

Note: This information is also available as a PDF download.

#1: Make sure there really IS a disagreement

Have you ever witnessed a “violent agreement”? It can actually be funny, as long as other people, rather than you, are involved. For example:

  • A says, on Monday, “The new release won’t be available for at least two days.”
  • B says, “That’s ridiculous! We won’t have it until Thursday!”

There’s no disagreement here, right? Most likely, B was expecting to hear a specific day, rather than an interval of days. In other words, B might not have been listening carefully. In this case, A could say, “Wait a minute, we’re saying the same thing. Thursday is more than two days from Monday.”

A variation of the violent agreement is the “violent non-disagreement.” For example:

  • A says, “Babe Ruth played for the Yankees.”
  • B says, “Baloney; he played for the Red Sox.”

Here, B’s mistake is thinking that playing for the Yankees and playing for the Red Sox are mutually exclusive. However, as most people know, Babe Ruth actually played for both teams.

Other false conflicts could involve time (different time zones), distances (miles vs. kilometers), or release levels (different/additional functions, depending on the release).

I could cite other examples, but you get the point. Matters that appear to conflict might not conflict when you look more closely. Listen carefully to the other person and make sure there really is a difference.

#2: Separate yourself from your position

In his classic work The Psychology of Computer Programming, Gerald Weinberg describes the concept of “egoless programming.” Under this concept, a team of technical programmers, including the author of a program, reviews that program, checking for errors. The less defensive the programmer feels about the code, the more productive the review process will be. In other words, the process goes more smoothly if the programmer separates himself or herself from the program and doesn’t view discovered errors as a personal attack.

In the same way, actors, when interviewed about a role they play, generally refer to their own character in the third person. When talking about his character, Benjamin Martin in The Patriot, for example [SPOILERS AHEAD], Mel Gibson would more likely say, “Gabriel’s death had a big impact on Benjamin” rather than “Gabriel’s death had a big impact on me.” Similarly, he would more likely say, “Benjamin Martin is a man who’s trying to escape his past,” rather than “I am a man trying to escape my past.”

Try to adopt this view of disagreements. If we involve ourselves personally with our positions, we will have a harder time being objective about them. That lack of objectivity can prolong a disagreement needlessly. Try to view your position not as “your” position, but merely “a” position. In the same way, if you have an issue with someone else’s position, make clear that your concern is with the issue, not with the person, if that’s the case.

#3: Maintain professionalism

We’ve all heard the old saying about “disagreeing without being disagreeable” and that “honey attracts flies better than vinegar.” I don’t know why I would want to attract flies, but that’s a different matter. In any event, treating people with respect — even those with whom you disagree — can earn you respect in return and gives your position more credibility.

#4: Listen

The violent agreement involving the three-day delay could have been avoided had person B been listening more carefully. Listen to people completely, if you can, before responding. If you have to interrupt, for example, because the other person is being long-winded, try to summarize your understanding first. People sometimes express themselves differently than you expect. If you fail to listen, you might find yourself responding not to the other person’s actual position, but only to what you thought the other person’s position was.

#5: Recognize and avoid “straw man” arguments

This point carries over from the previous one. It’s easy to argue against a position that no one has. Attacking a position that isn’t really the one a person holds is called a “straw man” argument because, like a straw man, it’s easily knocked down.

If you fail to listen carefully, you may find yourself wasting time reacting to such a position rather than to someone’s actual position. It’s bad enough to attack a straw man by accident; it’s ethically questionable if you do it deliberately. Similarly, make sure others really do understand your own position.

#6: Agree to disagree

Sometimes, no matter how much discussion occurs, you’re unable to agree on one particular point. In some cases, that single disagreement prevents further discussion. However, other times, you might be able to switch to other topics. If so, it’s best to “agree to disagree” on the point of contention and move on to the other areas. Maybe later you can return to the disagreement and work through it. But try to make progress in spite of the issues about this one thing.

#7: Watch what you say

Once spoken, words can never be taken back. There’s no “untalk” feature corresponding to an e-mail “unsend.” Similarly, when a stone enters a pond, it sends out ripples that go only outward. As the saying goes, “A harsh word stirs up anger.”

Your mother’s advice to count to three (mine told me to count to 10, in fact) before answering holds just as true now as when you were small. In particular, and in view of the earlier advice to separate person from issue, be careful about overusing the words “you” or “your” or similar terms. Doing so blurs the line between person and issue and can make the other person feel defensive or accused.

A good technique is to “play Columbo,” a reference to the old television series about a detective with that name. Peter Falk, who played the role, came across as an idiot who always needed someone to explain things to him. In the same way, if you have a disagreement or concern, consider expressing it via a question rather than via a statement. Does the other person’s position lead to a problem? Ask questions so that in answering them, the other person realizes the issue as well. Just don’t overdo this technique or it will sound contrived and insincere.

#8: Use a lower voice

Just as “A harsh word stirs up anger,” so too does “A soft answer [turn] away wrath.” If you lower your voice when speaking, you accomplish three things. First, you reduce any tension that might exist. Second, you force the other person to listen to you. Third, because of its unexpected nature, lowering your voice can gain you a psychological advantage in the discussion.

#9: Try to see the other person’s point of view

In a previous blog entry, I talked about the importance of seeing the other person’s point of view when explaining a technical concept. That same principle applies with respect to disagreements. The more you understand someone’s position, the more you may understand their concerns — and the more likely you can resolve the disagreement. In fact, before responding with your own position, consider paraphrasing the other person’s position and concerns first. Doing so sends a powerful message. Even more important, emphasize first those matters upon which you and the other person agree.

#10: When the disagreement is resolved, put it behind you

We all know the saying about “water under the bridge.” Once a matter is settled, don’t keep a record of wrongs. Let it go. Dwelling on past differences seldom leads to productive results and can lead to bitterness and bad feelings. Look back only to learn from what happened, so that you can avoid similar mistakes (if any) in the future.

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