Turning Disagreement to Dialogue

This post was written by Hannah Morris, Director of Assessment & Advancement at The Latimer Group.

In our work, we focus most of our efforts on helping people to build consensus, create alignment, and get others on board with their approach or initiative or idea. We help individuals reflect upon their own goals and their audience’s goals and find the common ground between the two.

But we also care a great deal about the value of disagreement.

Disagreement plays a vital role in creativity and excellence. It is when teams and organizations articulate the value of and create room for the disagreement that comes with diverse perspectives, that they can be most effective. Why is that? Because disagreement (with the right approach and conditions) helps us see the holes in our thinking, it shows us the perspective that we failed to incorporate, it offers news avenues to consider, and it makes our end-product easier to promote, defend, and employ.

Now, is all disagreement healthy and productive? Of course not. So let’s think about what makes the right conditions for productive disagreement.

First, it needs to come with overt respect and empathy. Our relationships need to be tangibly affirming; they must be built on the trust that comes from a consistent demonstration and articulation of warmth, concern for one another, openness, and vulnerability.

Second, disagreement needs to be expressed for its inherent value – the offer of a different perspective – not with the focus on pushing forward one’s agenda. If we feel we must “win” by asserting our perspective as the best and most important in a winner-take-all scenario, we will ultimately “lose” the value in productive dialogue. Our contribution of diverse ideas needs to be for the greater good, for the robustness of the conversation, and for the long-term health of our community and culture.

This does not mean that disagreement will always be comfortable. In fact, even in the best relationships and teams, it can be highly uncomfortable, which explains why we so often shy away from it. But embracing the discomfort enables us to engage in challenging conversations with courage.

With my colleagues, what I value even more than our moments of accord and unity, are our moments of healthy, productive, uncomfortable conflict and the understanding, learning, respect, and growth that they foster.

Whether or not healthy disagreement is part of your team or organization’s macro culture, you can still encourage it on a micro level. As you participate in discussions, consider ways in which you can create and support this type of exchange. When offering a countering viewpoint, begin with a statement such as, “I certainly understand where you’re coming from, and I’d love to offer my own perspective.” Or “While these are all valid points, I think it is still important for us to consider alternative views. For example…” Affirm your respect and understanding first, and then present your point as an expansion for consideration, not a mandatory U-turn. And if you witness others adding to discussions in this way, support and encourage them. In these ways, we can all become the champions of healthy disagreement and productive dialogue.

Does your team:
– Take too long to make decision?
– Fail to ask for what it wants or needs from you?
– Make things too complicated?
– Deliver unconvincing or disorganized presentations?
– Have new hires who are unprepared to communicate in the workplace?

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Hannah Morris

A book about change

The Latimer Group’s CEO Dean Brenner is a noted keynote speaker and author on the subject of persuasive communication. He has written three books, including Persuaded, in which he details how communication can transform organizations into highly effective, creative, transparent environments that succeed at every level.