People don’t like being disagreed with.
It’s a pain for the two parties and for everyone else watching. Speaking from experience, I had to sit through an hour-long discussion regarding where custard apple is grown in India, because my cousins refused to reach a middle ground. They looked through Google, produced age-old articles and research amid much fighting, till finally my exasperated aunt said she would never invite us home again.
It is annoying, no doubt, talking to someone who disagrees with you, especially when you know you’re in the right. Worse, the tensions escalate into a heated argument. Neither side is willing to back down. For instance, we still haven’t reached a solution with the custard apple argument.
Why so? Why is it so hard to ever come to some form of resolution in conflicts?
For starters, ego. “People tie their beliefs to their sense of self, resisting compromise when their ego or core identity is at stake,” explains Sarmistha Mitra, wellness expert and the CEO of The Dubai-based Wellness Sanctuary. “It’s also the fear of giving up something valuable, be it power, resources, or principles, can deter compromise,” she says. Moreover, owing to their own insecurity and low self-esteem, they start perceiving the other side as a threat. Often, disagreements are the result of confirmation bias, says Mitra, where people look to only agree with others who align with their beliefs.
People tie their beliefs to their sense of self, resisting compromise when their ego or core identity is at stake. It’s also the fear of giving up something valuable, be it power, resources, or principles, can deter compromise..
So, how do we navigate such a minefield, especially in the workplace where we spend most of our days? It’s difficult, but not necessarily impossible.
Battling disagreements in the workplace
Facts over emotions, always.
“When you are in the midst of a disagreement at work, it’s not because you don’t like them or you have an issue with them,” explains Catherine McNeely, a life coach. “You need to keep your emotions in check, and evaluate your facts first. You need to ensure there is an impersonal tone in the conversation, so that nothing feels accusatory. Keep personal attacks out of the conversation,” she advises.
Another point to remember: First consider, is it really worth engaging in a discussion, she asks. Do you really need to spend your energy explaining why you disagree? “Pick your battles. If it’s something that affects you, or the productivity and can wait, then you can let it slide,” says McNeely.
However, if it’s just really getting on your last nerve that someone’s wrong, then here’s what you can do.
When you realise that your colleague is not going to agree with you, step away for a while. Return to the discussion, only if you know that you have enough points to back up your argument. “Before engaging in the discussion, it is crucial to prepare,” explains Rubina Malik, thought leader and motivational speaker. “Gather relevant information and familiarise yourself with key points and facts. Also have a clear understanding of your intentions and goals,” she says.
Listen to the other side first
Just listen. Even if the other person insists that it’s going to rain despite the bright sunshine, still listen. And then you present your facts later, as to why it won’t rain.
Don’t immediately start pointing out your areas of disagreement, adds Malik. “It is important to allow the other person to express themselves fully,” she says. If you don't, the other person gets more defensive and is less likely to listen to you.
“Try to comprehend their viewpoint, validating their feelings, and demonstrate genuine empathy. By showing empathy and letting them share their concerns openly, you foster mutual respect and rapport, reducing the likelihood of misunderstandings or defensiveness,” she adds.
Try to comprehend their viewpoint, validating their feelings, and demonstrate genuine empathy. By showing empathy and letting them share their concerns openly, you foster mutual respect and rapport, reducing the likelihood of misunderstandings or defensiveness
“Even if you disagree, acknowledge, and recognise their position to show respect for their perspective, which builds a potential for mutual understanding and cooperation,” she adds.
Present a new viewpoint, express your own perspective using "I" statements, seek common interests or values linked to the matter at hand. As you reiterate the common ground you share, you can slowly lay the groundwork for reaching a consensus.
No mocking. Stay professional and respectful
A marketing consultant who prefers not to have her name revealed, remembers watching an agreement whether the two parties in question, turned to name-calling because they could not agree on a deadline. Heads up: Telling someone “you’re so stupid, I can’t believe it”, doesn’t solve any disagreement.
“I think the reason why disagreements spiral out of control is because people resort to mocking, sarcasm,” says McNeely. “By doing so, you’re disrespecting another person. If you find yourself getting annoyed, step back for a while, before returning to the argument. There’s no point attacking the other person, laughing at their views, and don’t ask them leading questions to confuse them,” she adds. “Ask them questions to understand their view, not to mock them,” she says.
Here are some statements that you can use:
'Can you elaborate on this more for me?'
'What would you like to see going forwards?'
'Can I see if I've understood you correctly?'
Are there past issues that need to be addressed?
Some disagreements are far more complicated and layered, even if they seem simple at first. So, sometimes, you need to look back at the past and see why this person is disagreeing with you. “Address past incidents that may have bred insecurity or mistrust in the other party. Take responsibility for past actions,” explains Mitra.
For instance, you insist on approaching a task in a certain way that hasn’t worked out well in the past. However, you know that this time, you have enough resources and knowledge to get it right. Unfortunately, your teammate is sure that it will have the same outcome. Without taking it personally, explain to them calmly why you are sticking to what you believe, says McNeely. Show them the knowledge that you possess, rather than getting agitated.
Look for new perspectives
Keep it interactive and explore alternatives, explains Malik.
“Encourage joint brainstorming for creative win-win solutions and remain receptive to each other's ideas, and show that you are capable of reaching a middle-ground,” she says.
Sometimes, you can agree to disagree, but respectfully. After engaging in constructive dialogue that reduces gaps, you need to establish a mutual understanding, explains Malik. You can look for beneficial solutions, and if the argument requires it, set clear expectations. There needs to be an establishment of trust and commitment, so that the solutions can be executed.
“Once innovative, mutually beneficial solutions have been identified, it is imperative to set clear expectations and delineate roles. Establishing trust and demonstrating commitment to resolving the issue requires the execution of agreed-upon solutions while remaining open to necessary adjustments.
And, when all else fails, consider involving a neutral mediator or supervisor to help both sides gain an objective perspective and find common ground.