What does it mean to disagree well?

Three figures arguing with various colorful on each image

To encourage collaboration, healthy competition, and overcome conflicts and disputes one technique you can apply is to disagree well. You like many in our society today appreciate monologues that are provided to you by those with whom you agree to reaffirm positions, how smart you are, and how angry you should be with those that do not share that same perspective. The classic example in our society today has to do with reds and blues in our current political environment. Braver Angels offers an opportunity to overcome these differences with dialogue. This is one example of how to disagree well. The commentary that follows addresses the issue of what does it mean to disagree well.

This article addresses three broad areas. These are

  1. the recognition and value of competitive ideas;
  2. focusing on relationships; and
  3. exploring shared values

What follows is an elaboration of each of these ideas


Recognize the value of competition of ideas


A healthy competition of ideas allows the meeting of the minds to select an alternative that is the best alternative.

With a positive competition and a collaboration of ideas to address a common goal a solution can be found that maximizes benefit and minimizes pain.

How might this process play out.

In this instance time is spent up front to define the problem properly. Sometimes this is a fundamental error when a problem is defined so as to end up with a specific solution without any intention of truly defining the problem. Once the problem has been properly defined, work to identify and develop alternatives. With each of the alternatives determine the impacts economically, environmentally, and socially. Once these have been determined, evaluate how positive of negative the impacts are for each alternative economically, environmentally, and socially. From this evaluation you may be able to accept an alternative, produce a hybrid alternative combining more than one of the alternatives or something different and select a solution. You may want to test the solution before implementing the solution. Sometimes you may want to back up to an earlier step due to additional concerns that were found prior to implementing the solution.


Focus on relationships


Connecting relationships is a key element to collaboration. If the parties do not know each other taking time to research the other party on social media (Google, LinkedIn, Facebook, and more) and with your social network, may offer you insights before meeting with the other party. When meeting with the other party for the first time,

look for ways to connect with the other party identifying common interests with open ended questions.

Topics for example may relate to:

  • Education;
  • Geography;
  • Marital status;
  • Children;
  • Pets;
  • Beverage preferences (coffee, tea, water);
  • Morning or afternoon person;
  • Hobbies;
  • Travel; and
  • Any other areas you may share in common.

Your focus is on initiating or changing relationships exploring common values. On the topic of disagreeing well it is important to let go of positions and to explore interests. By exploring the facts, the issues, the feelings behind each issue, and the interests of the parties going forward. By working together to explore each other’s perspective it may be possible to find ways to work towards a common goal. By being calm, professional, competent, confident, and compassionate, while listening actively this promotes open dialogue for discussion. You are not oriented towards changing the other person’s mind, but in changing relationships to better understand one another. This leads into the third area of exploring shared values.


Explore shared values


In the process of focusing on changing relationships the emphasis was to understand each other’s perspective. To explore values, it is necessary to

let go of beliefs and to explore further to understand underlying values.

What are values that the parties share in common? For example

  • Respect for each other;
  • Safe communities;
  • A good education;
  • A strong economy;
  • Economic opportunities;
  • Developing shared interests;
  • Timely closure;
  • Minimizing expenditure of resources;
  • Our common humanity; and
  • Others.

Behind every entrenched position is at least one interest. Positions polarize and interests integrate. Interests hold the seeds to a solution. By focusing on values, it may be possible to develop a better working relationship that will allow you to disagree with each other in a manner that may promote dialogue and understanding.


Overcome an impasse


In this article on staying curious with hard conversations David Smith shares that we are all wrong about something, but we don’t know what we are wrong about. We want to be right, but we need to be humble about what we don’t know about.

You have to ask yourself do you value truth or being right more.

 When you reach an impasse, this is an important question to ask yourself. So, when do you ask this question?

In some instances, if there is an impasse a  break or a trained mediator may be able to help.

Take a break

A break for a period of time may help the parties to consider their concerns upon some reflection. Emotions may be calmer, and it may be possible for participants to brainstorm and produce other alternatives and considerations not previously proposed. The break may only be needed for a short temporary duration, or a break of a longer period of time to reflect, do additional research, or network with others. Another reason may be able to add value to the discussion to allow the parties to disagree well.

Third party mediator

Both parties may be in a position to agree to disagree. Sometimes a third party can ask questions from a different perspective. For example, how may other stakeholders view this situation such as the public, vendors, customers, shareholders, employees, competitors, and others. Just asking this question may cause one or both parties to look at their current situation differently. Another example may be to explore short versus a longer term perspective with the same set of facts.

A third party having met with both parties may be able to explore perspectives that the parties involved may not see given their focus on the problem in narrower terms.

What can a third party recognize that participants may not?

  • The value of various ideas and competition of those ideas
  • Help the participants see these ideas though skillful questioning
  • A focus on changing relationship, not the minds of the participants
  • Disagreeing well is about letting go of persuading the other side of the righteousness of one side’s ideas
  • Disagreeing well  is seeking to understand the other side’s perspective
  • A focus on the values and goals both parties share with others even with whom they do not share ideas

Consider all of these elements when it may vary well behoove you to disagree well.

About the author

Mike Gregory is a professional speaker, an author, and a mediator. You may contact Mike directly at mg@mikegreg.com and at (651) 633-5311. Mike has written 12 books (and co-authored two others) including his latest book, The Collaboration Effect: Overcoming Your Conflicts, and The Servant Manager, Business Valuations and the IRS, and Peaceful Resolutions that you may find helpful. [Michael Gregory, ASA, CVA, MBA, Qualified Mediator with the Minnesota Supreme Court]