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5 Keys to Successfully Engaging in Disagreement

This article was originally published by Brien Dunphy on LinkedIn.

Conflict is something healthy teams and healthy relationships engage in all the time. The issue isn’t whether you are engaging in conflict and disagreement (because you are); the issue is how you are doing it. In my coaching practice, I use these principles to ensure my clients successfully navigate such terrain at work. Here are five keys to successfully engaging in disagreement:

Determine What Success Looks Like

The first step in any disagreement is to determine what you are trying to accomplish. Conflicts and disagreements are often hastily initiated, without either party pausing long enough to consider their goal for the conversation. Make a conscious decision as to what your ultimate goal and your minimum goal is for the conversation before momentum and emotion carry you into the fray. Make the goal tangible and something you can clearly articulate. Choose to be forthright, organized, and solution-focused in pursuing your goal, resisting a defensive and self-protective posture. Recognize the short-sightedness of playing games with your words and intentions. Such choices will not produce growth for the team and certainly not for you professionally. To successfully engage in disagreement, you must first determine and articulate what success looks like.

Listen Deeply

Once you’ve conceived and determined what success looks like, focus on listening deeply to what the other person is saying. Our conversations, particularly in disagreement, are muddled with internal distractions and we overlook the need to listen deeply to the other person. We fail to find the thoughts behind the words. We fail to find the ethic, the ethos, the heart with which they are communicating. Instead, we are busy trying to establish our counterargument. We’re listening not with an ear to understand, but with an ear to win. The goal in a successful disagreement at work is not to win, but to create a better, more successful environment. Listen deeply to what their words are trying to communicate. What is their body language communicating? Does what I am seeing align with the words they are choosing? If not, why not? Benevolently, consider what may be behind the scenes causing that dissonance in them. Is there distraction or dissonance in me that is preventing me from listening and truly hearing? If something is distracting you, name it and eliminate it.

Check for Understanding, “What I Heard You Say Was…?”

You’ve determined what success looks like and have listened deeply to the other person. The third key to a successful disagreement is to check for comprehension. Ask for clarification. Do I really understand what was just said? Be able to repeat back to them what you heard. If you are seeing places of humanity, ask them about it, “I feel like I’m sensing a little bit of concern/doubt/frustration/apprehension/confusion/etc., am I sensing that correctly?” Whatever it is you are picking up on, ask for clarity. It’s in that verbal negotiation that you’re going to get a better understanding and ascertain what is being said. It is also in that place where you are going to establish a deeper, safer, and more reliable relationship.

Consider the Other Party May Be Right

The fourth key is incredibly important, and when tension is high, feels unnatural (because it is). Authentically look for the points in which the other person may be right, and where you might be off the mark. This is crucial because life is simply better when you live it as a learner. Approach disagreement, career, and every other area of life with an abiding desire to learn. Every interaction is an opportunity to develop and improve. I often exhort my clients to embrace a mindset that not only welcomes correction but even finds new energy from it. If we genuinely hold a growth perspective, when we meet correction, we have met improvement. It is precisely at that moment we know we have become a more informed and knowledgeable version of ourselves. Ask yourself what you can learn from this disagreement. Consider where the other person’s perspective is more correct than your own. When you embody the ethic of a humble learner, the relational atmosphere of safety, appreciation, and authenticity will diffuse tension and streamline both human connection and practical outcomes.

Decide on a Path Forward

The last step is to mutually discuss and decide on the path forward. Most conversations stop short of this critical point of closure. Decide what you are going to do with the knowledge and understanding you’ve acquired in this healthy, challenging, meaningful, and necessary conversation. Many of my clients will go through the steps above and will arrive at the point where there is a mutual understanding, personal connection, and even optimism in the situation. However, settling there is often not in full service of the ultimate goal. There must be closure, even if the closure is an explicit agreement to revisit the conversation later for further progress. Walk away with action items. Decide together who is going to do what and when; and say it out loud to ensure understanding. Contract around any agreed changes to process, structures, and behaviors. Leave nothing in the ether of assumption. Assumption is the land where good intentions get bludgeoned by poor understanding.

Lastly, all of this takes time, patience, and energy. Rightly invested time and energy at the point of disagreement will produce efficiency of thought, depth of understanding, and a successful outcome. When these simple best practices are employed consistently, they will become intuitive. It is then that you will find the disagreements you currently dread become opportunities, not obstacles; and the resulting outcomes and relationships will be deeper, stronger, safer, and more dependable.


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