Most people are uncomfortable with conflict.
But if that discomfort keeps you from having important healthy discussions with people who disagree, doing business gets in the way. like a executive coach working with founders and executives at startups, I see the negative effects of this prudishness. Sometimes it can become toxic. A company I coached a few years ago had a habit of agreeing with each other during the meeting, texting each other on the side to express their displeasure with the decisions and the people they made. This does not lead to operational efficiency or psychological safety.
It turns out that conflicts, expressed openly and constructively, are critical to building a strong team and company. Healthy debate is the only way your people can gather ideas, get all the perspectives, and work their way to a better answer. Research shows that conflict – handled well – is essential for creativity.
Here are three tools to help you disagree productively.
Accept that conflict is natural
Smart people with different ways of thinking, different experiences and different backgrounds disagree. Research supports the value of diversity within teams. Doesn’t that value come from bringing different points of view into the room?
In addition, every company experiences natural tensions between functions. Sales wants to agree to all the features customers want, which drives engineering crazy. Finance wants to cut back on ad spend, but marketing sees that as an investment.
If someone disagrees with you, or says something you don’t agree with, pause before making a counter-argument. Check in with how you feel. Are you defensive or even angry? If so, what do you personally take that you may not need to do?
Then relax your body and try to open your mind. Maybe you can learn from what they say. At the very least, listening to what they say provides insight into how to arrive at a solution, and that is valuable information.
Then ask a few questions to make sure you understand their point of view. You do not have to agree to investigate. Besides helping you better understand where they come from, your curious probing gives them the experience that they are being listened to. This combination will help both of you to bring down any negative emotions and allow for the exchange of ideas instead. That’s how we all learn.
Use language to emphasize your desire to participate
You have a lot of power to signal your internet through your language and your tone. Acknowledge the other person’s point of view by mirroring it back. You can say, “So it sounds like what you’re saying is” and then reformulate what you’ve heard them say. This makes them feel like they’re being heard — always critical in conversations that can get heated — and also lets them correct or refine what you’ve said. By doing this, you both learn more about the point of view they are expressing.
You can also soften harsh statements by using hedge words like “sometimes” and “maybe.” And if you use more words, it has the effect of dampening what you say. So “I don’t agree” can turn into “I hear what you’re saying, but I’m not sure I completely agree with your point.” As a coach, I often hear people say: “I don’t have time for that”, but I challenge you to literally count how much extra time it takes. I bet it’s barely a second. It may take you some energy to use the extra words to soften your point, but that’s nothing compared to the energy it takes to de-escalate a tense stalemate or – worse – around someone in your workplace. to work with who you don’t talk to anymore because you got into all-out war.
As a leader you are supervised. What you do has an inordinate impact on what people think is the right behavior. If you’re one of those who does sidecar pants, everyone knows it’s okay to act like that. But if you instead publicly praise your executives for disagreeing in a healthy way, they will learn that this is the way you expect them to behave. If you easily ask people to question your point of view and praise them when they do, they’ll start doing it for their own teams. And then disagreement can become a productivity tool and a stimulant for creativity — not something you need to avoid.