The power of constructive disagreement


Let's be clear: disagreement and challenge are healthy activities. Without them, teams are denied innovation and progress. And while not all discussions end acrimoniously in disagreement, too many of them do.

Where disagreement becomes unhealthy is when it's based on mix-ups and misunderstandings. In these situations, it becomes a poison that threatens to destabilise teams and relationships.

When this happens, it seems that statements which sound perfectly reasonable, rational and right when voiced, get lost in translation by the time the receiver hears them.

The resulting discussion is based on an ever-widening gap of opinion, cross-purposes, and polarisation of views - usually about the other person! Both parties believe they are right which, by a process of elimination, must mean that the other party is wrong.

Wouldn't it be great if people could just 'get it!' when we spoke to them? Why do they seem so incapable of understanding our point of view? Aren't we being clear enough? Do we have to spell it out? Why are they so stupid when I am so clever?!

These questions of frustration are ones we have probably all asked ourselves from time-to-time, and we have searched for answers.

  • Maybe they don't care. They don't respect what I have to say, so they wait for me to finish speaking (if I'm lucky) before putting me straight.
  • Maybe they are stupid, or worse, they are being deliberately obtuse. Maybe it's a game they play with me, to wind me up, because they know it's an easy button to press. [This is my voice of paranoia.]
  • And in my more creative moments I might imagine that some invisible force is taking my words and manipulating them before allowing them to filter through the consciousness of the person I am talking to. It's like some great ethereal conspiracy; something out there is deliberately toying with me, foxing me just because it can! [This is my voice of psychosis!]

Of course, there is always another explanation, and one that gives us a fighting chance of bringing about a positive change. I suggest that maybe we have not created the right conditions for people to be receptive to what we have to say.

It's not black and white

Perhaps we have become so used to adversarial conversations through our political and legal systems that we have forgotten how to generate proper dialogue. Maybe our schooling has placed a disproportionate emphasis on winning and losing, instead of on teamwork, collaboration and creating win-wins.

And this means that over time we have become lazy. We have developed bad habits that we have found hard to kick, so we haven't properly tried. And maybe it's easier to think "They're stupid, I'm clever!" and live with the frustration of friction.

How often have you heard someone start their response to something you have said with the words: "I disagree" or "You're wrong"?

Perhaps they have gone further: "You must be joking!", or "That's rubbish!" (Or substitute 'rubbish' for even more colourful and provocative language.)

Maybe you have used these words or some like them yourself.

It's the verbal equivalent of the pointed finger, and the effect is both powerful and destructive.

"I disagree" can be as lethal as a bullet in the way it kills the other person's point of view, and as sharp as a knife in the way it slices through their right to have or express such an opinion.

As such, it does not earn you the right to receive a fair hearing in return. It diminishes any chance you have of being understood because, quite frankly, they have stopped listening.

If you want to force someone into an oppositional state, tell them you disagree with them, or that they are wrong. The effect can be to polarise their opinion still further and to seek more justification for having it. In effect, they have more of a vested interest to prove themselves right, and you wrong! And you return the favour by doing the same.

Confusion, cross-purposes and conflict are created when we stop listening.

In our rush to destroy the other person's argument, we often fail to take time to understand their position or explain ours. The result is that great ideas are lost, and the adage that 'two minds are better than one' becomes more like 'knocking two heads together'!

But there is a better way.

A better way to disagree

What happens if we delayed the statement "I disagree" and preceded it with an explanation? What about trying to understand where our colleague is coming from rather than following our urge to tell them where they should be going? And what about using the alternative viewpoints as an opportunity to evaluate a situation in 3 rather than 2 dimensions?

The point is not necessarily to reach a consensus or to win the other person over to your position, but to have meaningful dialogue based on mutual appreciation of the facts and information that each position is based on.

So, imagine what would happen if the next time you found yourself disagreeing with a colleague you tried something new.

Instead of saying "I disagree with you" followed by an attempt to explain your reasons (to deaf ears), try explaining your position first, followed by the statement, "That's why I disagree with you on this point".

You can play around with a form of words that seems right for you. Here are some examples:

"I'd just like to explain how I currently see the situation and why I see it this way at the moment." [Provide your rationale and explanation]. "That's why I have difficulty accepting your position. "

"I'm interested in exploring some of the facts and data that seem to have got us to this point." [Provide your rationale and explanation]. "Therefore, I see things a bit differently to you at the moment".

"I'd like to explore your idea further. Before I do that I'd like to offer an alternative view." [Do so] "The data we currently have leads me to favour this alternative view. Can we discuss where our differences lie?"

If you are feeling particularly collegiate, you can advance to the next level and minimise still further your emphasis on the disagreement, by focusing on working up a shared solution.

So you have a choice. You can do what you've done in the past and begin with the bold statement, "I disagree". This will succeed in getting the other person's back up, and encourage them to be equally dismissive of you.

Or you can try a different approach which might allow you to break the deadlock, establish the true picture, and at least receive a full hearing. Isn't that more worth having than friction burns?


About The Author

Tim Lambert
Tim Lambert

Tim Lambert is the founding Director of UK-based Kay-Lambert Associates Limited, a people & organisation development consultancy.

Older Comments

I have enjoyed reading this article. Collegaues will disagree as often as family member disagree and it is imperative to communicate effective and maintain civility.