The Heart of the Argument

Getting Past Positions to the Sources of Disagreement

Arguments and conflicts are a normal part of working life, and good leaders must learn to handle professional disagreements diplomatically. In this week's column, Payson Hall explains some productive approaches to negotiating among differing points of view.

Let me begin with an unambiguous assertion: I'm not a therapist. I am a project manager and consultant who has served in a number of leadership and advisory capacities in the past thirty years. I cannot help you deal with crazy people, evil people, or family relationships-that's beyond my pay grade and training. That said, I do have a lot of project experience dealing with reasonable people who had honest differences of opinion that escalated into serious conflict.

Differences of opinion are healthy and essential, but, beyond a point, conflict can get out of hand and be damaging to project morale and relationships among team members. This week, I hope to share a few insights and techniques I've picked up in my career that can improve your ability to work through disagreements or at least better uncover underlying issues.

Rule 1: Assume people are trying to do the best they can with the information they have available.
In my career I have run into only a handful of truly evil and selfish people who acted in their self-interest knowing that their actions were not in the best interests of their project, organization, or co-workers. In my experience, these people are extremely rare. If you think you are arguing with one, be careful. You are probably not dealing with an evil person. When someone appears to be acting maliciously or selfishly, there are several alternatives that may explain the behavior: 

  1. The person taking a seemingly destructive or oppositional position is unaware of some of the negative consequences of the course of action he is taking or advocating.
  2. The people assigning negative consequences to a course of action are unaware of some of the positive aspects of the "negative" solution being proposed. 

Suggested Action: Give the people advocating each alternative a chance to fully explain what they see as the advantages of their option. Don't let the opposition interrupt. Write down the proposed advantages. When the advocates are finished, give the opposition and chance to ask clarifying questions. Repeat for each option. Insist that people treat each other with courtesy and respect.

Rule 2: When people disagree, it is often because they have different perspectives.
Kind of a "duh," but this can also be profound insight if you give yourself permission to seek the basis of the different perspectives without prejudice. In my experience, the differences of perspective often come down to three key points: 

  1. Advocates of one position have different history than advocates of another. If your personal history is that converting to a relational database was a painful and error-prone experience, you will tend to think it is a bad idea. If my experience is that it was relatively easy and beneficial, I may advocate it. Someone else may have no personal experience but has heard good or bad stories from the media or other colleagues.
  2. People may be working with different assumptions. People rarely have complete information about anything. In absence of complete information, people fill in the gaps by making assumptions. This isn't bad as it is a natural process, but it can be a source of conflict when the assumptions are unspoken or unconscious and different from the assumptions of others. The challenge is that people are often unaware of the assumptions that they have made and treat them as if they are certain. If an organization has historically been extremely resistant to hiring consultants to address skill gaps, veterans of the organization may assume the same will be true in the future. They could possibly argue against a course of action that they know will require specialized skills because of concerns about the skill gaps, implicitly ruling out hiring specialized expertise without a second thought because of their assumptions.
  3. People think they are talking about the same thing and disagreeing, but in fact they do not agree on some basic definitions and are talking past one another. This is a trap I have fallen into on more than one occasion. (Read Lost in Translation for more information.)

Suggested Action: Take the time to talk about relevant differences in the history of people advocating different positions. This may help both explain the different positions and identify what was similar and what was unique among them. As you hear people disagreeing, be alert to assumptions that may underlie positions and try to identify and document them. A clever saying someone shared with me was "Everyone agreed, until we wrote it down." If a certain word or phrase seems to be an important point of contention, it can be insightful to ask people what the word means to them and publicly document definitions.

Rule #3: Ask, don't tell.
One of the best techniques I've learned for diffusing tensions when reasonable people are disagreeing is asking questions to understand why people believe what they believe. While this can open a can of worms if you are talking about religion or politics, most project issues should be less charged and not generate the same level of passion.

Suggested Actions

  1. Ask open-ended questions. Open-ended questions cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. Examples include:
  • What were some of the negative consequences you have observed because of that action in your past?
  • What might you have done to reduce the likelihood of that occurring?
  • What might you have done to reduce the impact of that occurring?
  • What might you have done to detect those problems sooner?
  1. Listen to the answers. Sometimes it is tempting to argue with people while they try to explain. Argue later. As Stephen Covey says, "Seek first to understand, then to be understood." Listen to what people say and how they say it, and try to identify the parts of their argument that seem to have the most energy. It's OK to seek clarification, but don't argue while you are in fact-finding mode.

Rule #4: Avoid framing decisions as one side "winning" and the other side "losing."
No one likes to lose an argument. Most of us can think of times when we invested more energy in an argument than the outcome warranted because we were convinced we were right and didn't want to lose-or didn't want to give the opposition the satisfaction of winning. Leaders need to work toward the best decision for the project after careful deliberation and hope to get the team on board with the decision.

Suggested Actions

  1. Take the time to understand the different perspectives on the conflict and respect the different history that advocates of different positions bring. This can take a lot of the winning and losing out of decisions.
  2. Sometimes the best decisions are informed by the reservations of the opposition, which might take the form of addressing their major concerns while going with another solution or acknowledging risks the opposition identifies and agreeing to monitor them as the solution is implemented.
  3. When the final decision is made, ask everyone to explicitly agree to support the decision. This can help people consciously let go of some of the energy of the conflict and put it behind them. 

Diplomacy is a critical and often ignored aspect of leadership. The ideas presented above won't defuse or resolve every conflict, but they can help de-escalate and resolve some of them. When successful, these tactics can help unite rather than divide a team. Good luck, and happy arguing.

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