How To Disagree Well

June 9, 2020

by Ravi Raman

I have a toddler at home. He is starting to discover his independent personality. He wields it like a swashbuckler. It’s fun to watch, though occasionally horrifying and always humbling. It’s giving me a real crash course in how to overcome adversity and disagree well!

Gone are the days when my instructions and opinions land on welcome ears. I didn’t think this day would come until the teenage years! Even the call to eat a meal full of his favorite foods clashes with calculated resistance.

Bedtime? Yeah right!
Drive in the car to a park? No way!
Play with a bunch of new toys. Nope!

Agreeing requires a more subtle approach. Totalitarian force never works. We must give way to calm, patience, understanding, and – did I say PATIENCE?

What does navigating a relationship with a toddler have anything to do with how to navigate the world of leadership and business? It has everything to do with it. If you are a leader of any sort, you encounter disagreement. Business leaders, community leaders, family leaders all can relate.

When we don’t understand the art of disagreement, we get broken relationships, fractured communities, and in extreme cases (which are all too common lately), violence and death.

When we do understand the nature of disagreement and how to do it well, we get an altogether different set of outcomes. Even in cases where complete alignment is impossible, you can disagree with others in a manner than still fosters strong social connection and commitment to a given course of action.

The Antidote to Disagreement

Disagreeing well requires an entirely different attitude than most of society is using. The approach is one that starts with deep listening.

Unlike shallow listening, where one listens to the world while firmly holding a point of view in mind, deep listening is the capacity to be with diverse opinions without a tsunami of opposing thought rising from inside oneself.

What happens when we listen deeply is nothing short of miraculous, even if only one party is doing it. The listener and speaker will often notice pronounced shifts in physiological and psychological states. Calmness, curiosity, and a sense of rapport deepen.

Most impressive of all, when we deeply listen, we become more open to fresh thoughts regarding how we might move forward with others in an aligned way.

It’s well understood in research on creativity, that pressure and stress are the enemies of innovation. Likewise, in any disagreement, our internal pressure – magnified by thinking and ameliorated by deep listening – is a significant factor in whether or not a breakthrough insight will emerge to resolve the issue.

Back to the example with my toddler…

I’ve begun to learn that even in my dealings with a 15-month-old who is being increasingly opinionated, listening is the key. The less reactive I am, and the more attentive I am, the better the chance of finding a way out of tantrums. I’m noticing a lot of fresh insights:

Perhaps the reason he isn’t eating is due to a wet diaper. Perhaps the reason he doesn’t want to ride in the car is he gets bored (books work wonders here). Perhaps the reason he doesn’t want to go to bed is he is overtired and overstimulated (rocking and relaxing in a dimly lit room helps the wind-down process). Perhaps an earlier bedroom would help things work more smoothly. Perhaps there is nothing to do but be with him as he has a tantrum and finds his way out of it.

If we wish to be a leader in the world, its vital that we learn how to be with others that hold different points of view. We must learn how to work together, even with these differences. I can think of no better starting point than in learning how to listen.

Call to action

Proactively seek a point of view that is different from your own on a topic you care deeply about. It could be a conversation with someone. It could be watching a news show (or reading an article) that has a different take on an issue than you.

As you do this, practice listening deeply while holding your opinions at bay. Clear your headspace for deeper insights around key questions, such as:

What is the other party really trying to say?

What psychological resistance are you noticing in your mind to their ideas?

Where do you feel the desire to learn more?

What fresh insights does it spark in you that might move people forward towards agreement (and away from disagreement)?

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