While doing research, I once observed a fascinating disagreement among executives at a nursing home parent company. It changed the way I think about workplace conflict and pointed the way toward handling disagreements that could cut through entrenched conflict and interdepartmental warfare.
The disagreement started while the CEO, two area presidents, and a finance director were going over the data from a recent initiative. At one point the CEO said, “I don’t think that number’s right.”
One of the presidents, Cole, disagreed. “Yes it is,” he said, “I’m sure of it,” and gave his reasons for thinking that number was accurate. The finance guy also sided with Cole; the number was right, his team had double-checked it.
The CEO, however, was unconvinced. He was sure the number was signed off and that the calculations were in error. The group went back and forth this way and the discussion grew serious. The approach to an important issue depended on the accuracy of that number. After a while, the CEO sent the finance guy back to his team to check it again and see if they could find an error, and they all started talking about something else.
Ten minutes later, the finance guy came unceremoniously back in with his laptop and sat down without looking up. The CEO asked quietly, “Did you find the error?” The finance guy paused for a moment, then admitted, “We found the error.”
But here’s the crux: Cole, the opposition leader, having been proven wrong in front of the CEO, the other area president and the finance guy, leapt to his feet, shouted “Oh-ho!” and bounded across the room to engulf the CEO in a hug, then shook him by the shoulders and proclaimed, “Oh man, you were right! Of course, you were right!” A moment later he glanced up and remembered I was there. He gave the CEO one last sportsmanlike shoulder shake and said enthusiastically, “I just love this guy. He’s amazing!”
This was a case where the stakes were high and the disagreement was genuine — and yet when it all shook out there were absolutely no hard feelings. This happened in part because this team had been trained in the principles of the Arbinger Institute, which teaches leaders that the appreciation of others is fundamental. You can read hundreds of books and seek out loads of advice about coping with disagreements and differences, but all the techniques are useless and counterproductive when the other person can tell that, underneath it all, you see them as an inconvenience to get around.
Anyone can learn to see others in a way that reduces conflict and eliminates tools for handling disagreements. Employ these three magical insights to overcome conflicts:
Take the other person’s disagreement as a signal to stop.
Too often, when we hear others resist or disagree with our ideas, we respond by digging in and fighting harder for our side. We all tend to do this, but think for a moment: have you ever dug in to defend your position and found that your relationship was better afterward? Of course not. That’s because defending our position against another person isn’t a respectful way to treat another human being.
Other people — real true living people with their own life histories — are bound to see things differently than we do. When we interpret their disagreement as a threat or an attack, it’s like we’re saying their perspective isn’t legitimate, or that they wouldn’t possibly disagree on merits, so they must be hostile. That attitude is insulting, not to mention counterproductive. Differences of opinion aren’t a crisis. They’re just what it means to work with human beings.
Treating others the way they deserve to be treated takes any sign of disagreement as a signal to stop trying to prove your point. Stop talking, refrain from arguing, take a deep breath and listen. That will stop the cycle of defensiveness before it begins and will signal to the other person that you honor his or her perspective.
Look for what’s right in what the other person says.
You don’t need to agree with the other person, but you do have to remember that the person has his or her own reasons and hopes and fears. There’s nothing to lose from listening to another perspective, so listen to learn, not to find errors to exploit.
Once I was sitting in on an executive meeting when a conflict arose in response to a recent policy change about financial reporting. The executive leadership team had moved up the date that monthly reports were due. Victoria, one of the directors in the financial department, had come in to air her frustration over it. One of the executives explained the reason for it, but Victoria was still unhappy. Different executives patiently tried to get through to her, but she was still unsatisfied. I waited impatiently for one of the executives to just put his foot down and tell her to get on with her work under the new rules. What more could they do, after respectfully listening and explaining, if she still refused to see the benefits of the new deadline?
At length, after a final insistence from Victoria that she could not get accurate numbers under the new policy, there was a long space of silence. Finally, one of the presidents leaned forward, very seriously, and said, “Ok, I see your problem.” Then he asked, in all sincerity, “So, what can we do to help you get accurate numbers?”
Victoria leaned back, finally gratified. “Let me think for a second,” she replied. Barely 30 seconds later — after having fought and argued and insisted for a good 10 minutes — she shrugged and said to the group with a laugh, “You know what, it’s okay. It’s kind of ridiculous that it’s always taken us so long to get those reports in, anyway.”
The issue, all the time, hadn’t even been about the date change. It was about whether her concerns and difficulties mastered. As soon as she saw that they did, her concerns subsided.
There will always be something right in the other person’s point of view. If we ignore it and resist it, the person will feel diminished and resentful. If we acknowledge it and change in response to it, the person will feel valued. And more importantly, the person will trust us in future interactions.
Find a way to give in safely.
Very few issues are so crucial that they must be decided definitively the first time. Usually, the long-term gains that come from nurturing a relationship of trust far outweigh any short-term losses from an imperfect decision. Being willing to give in pays dividends.
In a meeting I attended, two area presidents strongly disagreed about whether or not to eliminate a subsidiary department. It was an antagonistic conflict, and I followed up with the person who had “lost” the disagreement a few weeks later. He’d completely forgotten the incident, and said he had no hard feelings toward Rick, who had “won.” When I asked him how he could be so unconcerned about a decision that had gone against his own judgment, he replied, “Because I trust Rick.”
He didn’t necessarily trust that Rick was right about the decision, he explained, but he trusted him to handle the transition honestly and be willing to regroup if it became clear that the decision wasn’t working.
People, real people, who have their own independent set of life experiences and goals and expectations, can be expected to disagree with one another on a regular basis about all kinds of things. It’s the inevitable expression of our profoundly different inner lives. If we handle those disagreements with an eye toward treating others as truly having legitimate perspectives, they cease to be sources of conflict or hostility. People with opposing points of view are an invitation to learn, to grow and to expand our understanding — they’re a doorway to exploration and discovery.
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