Let’s disagree without being disagreeable

I’ve long believed that conflict, done well, brings benefit to an organization. I’ve become increasingly adamant about that “done well” portion of my premise over the last 5 years or so- perhaps because in various venues I have had the opportunity to see “ideal” conflict as well as witnessing destructive conflict. A few weeks ago this cartoon came across my Instagram feed (note: Liz and Mollie are fantastic!), and that nudged me to try to put together some thoughts to share on the topic.

Many of us have been conditioned, either by our families of origin or by society, to believe that conflict is inherently bad. Instead of cultivating healthy ways of disagreeing, we avoid it at all costs. Yet respectful conflict can actually make a meaningful difference in both our personal and professional lives. I’ve seen a description of the concept of acquiring conflict debt, which is the sum of all of issues that haven’t been discussed and resolved that stand in the way of progress. In workplaces or families with high levels of conflict debt, conflict is neither valued nor normalized; managing conflictual conversations cannot even occur in these groups until leaders recognize that disagreement can be beneficial. I’m unafraid to state that some of the most difficult leaders I have worked with or for have been those who are absolutely unwilling to address hard topics, particularly when that’s going to result in a disagreement. They end up leading teams that are stuck and stagnant and have a high conflict debt load.

Numerous benefits are known for teams who can disagree. We know that they perform better in complex problem-solving exercises. We also know that discomfort is inherent in having teams that are diverse, but when this is embraced that these teams are often “creativity catalysts.” The transparency that allows groups to grow using conflict strengthens relationships, and provides a skill set that can be transferred to other relationships. Ultimately, the willingness to work with discomfort is beneficially for diversity- it becomes a virtuous spiral.

Some of my friends get to hear me talk about a Board that I serve on because I often offer it as a model for how to do conflict effectively. The primary understanding between all Board members is that we care deeply about one another, and that we have respect for the skills and experiences that the other women present bring to the table. Because of (not in spite of!) that underlying respect and because we have a clear mission that is value-driven, we frequently do not agree about processes or tasks. When I first joined the Board, I immediately realized that our board President is a catalyst in our conflict process because she creates a space where everyone has the opportunity to be heard. What I have seen happen time and again is that because we all speak freely, we almost always create something far more powerful than any of the original ideas through our disagreements. Ideas are valued for their content and potential, not for who spoke them.

I’m hopeful that you’re curious about some practices you can use to improve your conflict skills. Certainly formal training can play a role; in the absence of that, however, here are a few principles that can be helpful.

-Recognize that you’re not always going to be liked. Importantly, disagreement doesn’t equal a lack of kindness- unless you behave in a way that makes that true.

-Work from a common goal and seek common ground.

-Stay curious! Conflict is a chance to learn.

-Get unstuck- ask the other party for advice or take a break from the conversation if it’s not going well.

I’m not advising that you should disagree simply for the benefits it can bring if you agree with someone, go ahead and do so enthusiastically. My goal is to make conflict a little less scary so that we can find ways to disagree without being disagreeable.

2 thoughts on “Let’s disagree without being disagreeable

  1. This is so true. So many of us try to avoid conflict because our previous conflicts have had negative connotations. In many groups we have never seen conflict with win win resolutions. Therefore our groups become stagnant and we become unhappy.

    1. Absolutely! And we sometimes have leaders who “punish” group members who bring up different ideas or ways of doing things- which we know destroys people feeling safe to participate and grow.