A disagreement is not a conflict; it is simply a difference of opinions. Yet in many business situations we may perceive a simple disagreement as a personal attack, we may get defensive and rapidly escalate it into a real conflict. Or we may all together avoid the discussion for fear of conflict, missing the opportunity of having a productive exchange of ideas.

How can we recognise a disagreement for what it is, build the confidence to face it and handle it wisely with flair?

What comes to your mind when you hear the word “disagreement”? If your first reaction is a rush of conflicting emotions, you are not alone. A disagreement is a challenge, and even the most expert negotiators do not underestimate the emotional load that comes with it.

When we mention disagreements, our mind tends to associate it with conflict. Try to search for disagreement in Google images and you will find a majority of photos and cartoons representing angry people, fights and power confrontations. In our workshops and training programs, we continuously stumble into this misunderstanding, which appears to create several barriers in business negotiations and decision processes.

Many leaders receive training on conflict management and conflict resolution; few are trained in handling disagreements before they become conflicts. The consequences of treating a disagreement as we would treat a conflict may have serious consequences, which range from closing down discussions too soon, inhibiting innovation, enhancing asymmetric power at the expense of inclusion, decreasing employees engagement, creating unnecessary antagonisms and even sometimes slowing down alignment and decisions.

It is useful to reflect upon what happens in our mind when we hear a different opinion, even if stated in a respectful and kind form: we often “sense” a mild anxiety, a subtle sense of alert. The stronger we hold our own position in our mind, the more we perceive any alternative perspectives as potential threats. Unless we pay attention to our feelings, we may jump into a defensive mode, which can take different forms, from fighting back to avoiding or anything in between.

We may also attempt to rationalize our feelings, looking for past history (this person always disagrees with me) or for supporting alliances (everybody knows that this person is a troublemaker); we may detect signs in the other person´s behavior that we can interpret as antagonistic (he acts so self-assured, I think he wants to provoke); we may also be misguided by assumptions and prejudice (she is making this statement in order to undermine me in front of our boss)

Then, what can we do to handle disagreements wisely and with flair, without turning on our defensive mechanisms? How can we increase our confidence to face disagreements with open mind and curiosity?

There are usually three distinct steps of handling disagreements in an open, confident and wise way.

The first step is of course to recognize our instinctive reactions for what they are, i.e. emotions, without mistaking them for conscious reasons. When we learn to recognize that we are “going into our head” starting a sort of inner dialogue that keeps us stuck within one perception, and we forget to look at the other person with curiosity, we are making an unconscious decision to “go to war”.

We can train and learn to recognise the cues:

The second step is to learn and practice some simple behaviors that will gradually change our mental patterns of defense. As a start, we usually suggest to start with what we call ”The three Rules”; although not real rules, rather practical guidelines, they serve as simple exercises to help us redirect our attention away from our defensive fortress and towards an open and constructive dialogue:

  1. Substitute “Yes BUT” with “What I appreciate in your position is … AND”; this exercise forces us to look for any possible indications that the other person´s motive are not only to hurt us; this often makes us see beyond the apparent attack and we can feel an enormous relief, which in turn might also make the other person more willing to engage in a positive communication.
  2. Express the disagreement in terms of a common search for an exchange and a possible alignment; substitute “I … while You …” with “We …”. This is again an exercise that forces us to go into our mind and dismantle our protective walls, searching for common interests/goals before we focus too much on the details of the difference. It is a way to open our heart and invite the other person to open hers; to exchange ideas with curiosity and open mind.
  3. Pay attention to the use of forceful assumption-based statements like “I/We must” or “I/We should or should not”. Whenever possible, avoid such statements or try and use “I/We choose”. This is a good exercise to help us realize that we might be using justifications or excuses to close the discussion (especially in situations when we are afraid of loosing control). It is not uncommon to feel tense about allowing a completely open dialogue especially with clients or direct reports “what if they propose something that I have no control over? What if they distract me from my immediate goals?” Building confidence also means exercising the ability to state own needs and limits of discretion, without vetoing any diverging inputs.

The third step, probably the most arduous, is to learn to become very clear and transparent about our own intentions. The first and second steps described above, help us to gradually build this awareness. Too often we enter a meeting or a discussion with the assumption that everybody has the same goals, motivations and agenda, only to discover, too late, that the starting positions are actually quite different. We are sometimes so intuitively sure of “why we are here and what we are here to do” that we may forget to verbalize it; when we do, we may sometimes realize that we were not so clear to start with, or that we have not made it sufficiently clear to the others.

On a closing note, let me specify that I have not here discussed “what to do to change other people” because I believe that we can only change ourselves; incidentally, by accepting to change ourselves in the first place, we may also increase the odds of influencing and changing others, as an added bonus.

If you like this article and wish to learn more about the subject, please join our next free webinar on “Creating Positive Change from Disagreement” (January 13 at 4:00 PM CET). To book a slot and to receive connection details, please send a mail to info@grooa.dev-projects.tech

Laura Lozza is co-founder and CEO of GROOA, a European Partnership of Coaching Consultants. Many of our leadership programs focus on dealing with change and disagreements. www.grooa.com