The scene is a meeting room in a medium-sized company. Four team members are working out a plan to implement an upcoming project.
One team member, John, confronts Ryan, who is facilitating the discussion: “Ryan, I’m telling you, for testing, just write ‘as needed’ in the planning document. There’s no way to tell when we’re going to have to do that.”
Ryan: “Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of ironing out a planning document?”
John: “Obviously you don’t understand what this is all about.”
Ryan: “Actually, I understand full well about this aspect of the project. I worked on the testing criteria for six months before being assigned to this team.”
John: “Well if you understood, you would just write ‘as needed’ and we could move on.”
Ryan: “John, I fully understand. I just don’t agree. ‘Understanding’ and ‘agreement’ are two very different things.”
In companies of all shapes and sizes, the mindset of “understanding” being equated to “agreeing” is one of the biggest stumbling blocks in communication. Major roadblocks are created when people are myopic in their perspective of how things need to be. Differing perspectives can be a huge asset to any team, and conflict can be a good thing, but it has to be handled well to be valuable.
A few years ago, when facilitating a communication skills workshop, I encountered Samuel, a supervisor in a large, unionized company. Samuel was frustrated with the Human Resource department, which would not allow him to fire employees on the spot for flagrantly breaking company policies. Since we had just got done talking about the importance of focusing on another person’s point of view, I engaged Samuel in a simulated conversation, with me playing the role of the HR person. Here’s how it went:
Me: So tell me what’s frustrating you.
Samuel: I’m ticked off that you guys won’t let me fire these people who are breaking rules. I have employees that need to be fired, and you won’t let me do it!
Me: So you’re upset that we’re not letting you terminate people for rule violations—you believe you should be able to let them go on the spot?
Samuel: Yes! That’s it.
Me: Anything else?
Samuel: No, you’ve got it.
Me: Okay, now that I understand your perspective, I’d like to express the HR perspective, okay?
Samuel: If you want to.
Me: Because we’re a union company, we have certain rules we have to follow—rules that both the company and union have agreed on. The policy for these violations is that we first have to give these guys a warning.
Samuel: That’s a bunch of baloney. The rules have been broken—they know the rules, and I should be able to boot them on the spot.
NOTE: At this point I reaffirmed Samuels’s position, and then restated the HR position. Then I continued:
Me: I’m not asking you to agree with the HR position, I’m just asking you to repeat back what I’ve said so that I know you understand the HR position.
Samuel: I’m not going to repeat that back. If I do, it means that I agree with it.
I was shocked at Samuel’s short-sightedness. We had just got done covering all the whys and wherefores of the value of reflective listening.
Me: It sounds like you believe that if you say it, you agree with it.
Samuel: Yes. I don’t agree with that, so I’m not going to say it.
Me: But I’m not asking you to agree with it. All I’m asking you to do is repeat back what I said—just like I repeated back what you said—so I know you understand what it is I’m saying.
Samuel (mad): If I say it, it means I agree with it. I’m not saying it.
I looked around the room. I could tell by the facial expressions that everyone else was also amazed at Samuel’s unwillingness to verbalize his understanding of someone else’s position. In a weird way, except for Samuel, I think everyone suddenly had a grasp on what we were trying to convey.
When differing opinions arise, the key is to acknowledge and try to understand the opposing viewpoints. Just remember: You don’t have to agree! Just try to understand. Understanding does NOT mean agreement.