Disagreements don’t have to be destructive. They can be opportunities to come up with better ideas. But handling conversations with someone with a conflicting point of view is far from easy. Three strategies, which the authors identified in their research, can help.
From whether to embrace hybrid work to whether to introduce quotas for women or minorities at various levels in the organization, executive leadership teams across different companies we advise have been talking through polarizing issues. In many of those discussions, leaders often engaged in heated arguments with one another that were not that productive. As a result, they left the meetings feeling hurt and dissatisfied.
Disagreements with people whose opinions or ideas differ from our own are common in the workplace. When handled appropriately, disagreements lead to better results — but they are not usually viewed that way. In a recent unpublished survey we conducted of over 500 executives from different organizations, “fight” was the noun they most commonly associated with conflict at work. The most common adjective was “dysfunctional.” Though people face disagreements all the time, they (and their conversational partners) typically fail to communicate effectively, fueling conflict and harming their relationships.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Our new research, with over 2,000 people across multiple studies, suggests a few ideas that high-level executives — and all of us — can use to disagree better at work and beyond. Here are three strategies to use.
1. Focus on what you have to learn.
People regularly enter disagreements with the intent of proving their point and persuading the other side. They want to show them that they are right and the others are wrong and are ready for a fight. Though this is a common approach, it does not produce the results people hope for.
When people approach conflicts with a willingness to learn, they fare better. In one study, we showed research participants information about two possible conversation partners, both of whom disagreed with the participant’s views on a hot-button topic (namely, the priority hiring of women in STEM fields). We told some participants that their conversation partner wanted to persuade them. We told others that their conversation partner wanted to learn from them.
Most of the participants (78% of them) reported they would rather interact with the partner who was willing to learn about their views, even though they disagreed on the issue by the same amount. Though this may not sound surprising, lots of people don’t take this approach.
2. Don’t underestimate others’ interest in learning from you.
How people experience conflict — and how it eventually unfolds — is heavily affected by their perceptions of the other party’s thoughts and feelings. You might enter a conversation feeling inquisitive and humble, yet still storm away in anger if you don’t feel that your counterpart is reciprocating. After all, it takes two to tango. The problem is that people tend to misinterpret the intentions of those they disagree with.
In one study, we asked 600 participants to write down the objectives they hold when speaking to someone with opposing views on an issue as well as the objectives they believe their conversational partners hold. Our participants had little confidence in their counterparts’ desire to learn and understand their perspective. Indeed, only 16% of the objectives that participants listed for disagreeing others referenced a desire to learn, while 71% described an intention to persuade. (The remaining 13% didn’t fit into either category.)
By contrast, people were much more generous about their own intentions: Forty-two percent of their self-reported goals mentioned a desire to learn about their perspectives, while 39% focused on persuading a counterpart. (Twenty percent mentioned neither.) This tendency to underestimate the willingness of disagreeing counterparts to learn about opposing views applied when people considered conversations about politics or their favorite sports teams, suggesting that this pattern extends across different domains.
Consistently, in our studies, we find that most people state they are more willing than their conversation partner to learn about the other side’s opposing perspective during a conflictual conversation. This difference persisted even after people had a 10-minute conversation with someone they disagree with about the 2020 U.S. presidential election. In other words, the act of actually talking to a person from the other side did not convince people of their counterparts’ willingness to learn about their views.
However, we did see a glimmer of hope. People who did believe that their counterpart intended to learn about their point of view during the conversation enjoyed the interaction more and evaluated their partner more positively. Although they were on opposite sides of a bitterly fought U.S. 2020 presidential election, simply believing that the other person wanted to learn from them led participants to view their counterpart as more moral, objective, intelligent, likeable, and trustworthy. In fact, beliefs about their partner’s willingness to learn from them were the single most important predictor of conflict outcomes, including evaluations of one’s partner and enjoyment of the interaction. Critically, these beliefs were a stronger predictor of outcomes than their conversation partner’s actual (self-reported) willingness to learn about the other’s views.
3. Be explicit about your intentions.
Given your counterpart’s likely underestimation of your willingness to learn about them, you should be more direct and explicit about your intentions. In our research, we have found it only takes a couple sentences to clearly and effectively convey your intention to learn about your counterpart’s point of view.
For example, before making your own argument, you might say: “This is an important topic. I’m curious to hear what people who disagree with me think about this issue.” Then you could close your own argument with: “I recognize that not everyone sees this in the same way, and I would like to better understand where other people are coming from.”
We all want to be heard and understood, especially during disagreements that could have important consequences for our life at work. Yet, we go into conflict expecting to be barraged with a soliloquy on why our deepest held views are wrong. Such negative expectations, in turn, shape our behavior and, ultimately, our experiences. Our research suggests that the remedy is to focus on what you can change about your counterpart’s beliefs about you by demonstrating exactly the kind of behavior you are hoping to elicit.
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