Mindful communication

The smart way to disagree at work

Constructive conversations at work are often wrecked by emotion, despite our best efforts. When decision-making is driven more by your emotion than reason, the very best ideas can get lost, the outcome is less productive, and detrimental to your office relationships.

Today, emotional awareness is standard subject matter in many schools and the importance of self-awareness is core to developing better relationships with everyone from our parents to our teammates. Our bodies are wired to react immediately to our limbic brain (the hippocampus and amygdala, where core emotions start), but in a team dynamic we need to buffer in reaction and reflection time. You’ll have to train yourself to develop this sort of self-awareness and patience, but once it becomes ingrained in how you operate, you’ll realize that you’ll have more open, honest, and productive conversations with your teammates.

Take out the emotion of ‘I’m right, you’re wrong, I disagree’

Knowing that you both possess different data sets can help you manifest a conversation that stems from a place of curiosity, as opposed to disagreement.

The first step to having an intellectually honest conversation is to recognize the person you are talking to as an intellectual peer. Regardless of your relationship, it’s important to take into account that they bring their unique experiences and knowledge to the table. Knowing that you both possess different data sets can help you manifest a conversation that stems from a place of curiosity, as opposed to disagreement.

Over the course of any conversation, you’ll want to remain curious about why someone has a different point of view than you: they’ve thought of something you haven’t thought of, or maybe they haven’t yet been introduced to your information.

Setting yourself up for success

It takes up to six seconds for our automatic emotional reactions, to be felt, processed and controlled. In those six seconds, you might get mad, raise your voice, or change your facial expression or body position; in that window, you’re not really in control.

When you’re at work, being aware of the reality that you’re going to have an emotional response before an intellectual one will help you recognize the trigger point, and help you identify what to do next. An important part of the interaction is to work on processing the emotional response while still maintaining the intellectual conversation.

Here are a few techniques that have worked for us:

  1. Remind yourself that if you bring only your Amygdala into the meeting, you will fail.
  2. Pause before you speak. Take a break. Allow the emotional response to pass through you silently, as opposed to verbally.
  3. Think about the pursuit: a passionate, intellectual honesty and your challenge (your emotional response). When you’re ready, return to the conversation more aware of the ultimate goal.

Outcomes and goals

Often, our disagreements stem from our worldviews on an outcome so it’s crucial to get on the same page with a teammate about the ultimate goals you may be arguing about. Reframe your disagreements:

  1. Decide on a starting point: figure out what you both agree is true.
  2. Examine what you think is right: ask yourself what you think they’re right about and what you think you’re right about. Start with questions like, “What’s working? What’s not working?” Maybe you’re both on the same page about the outcome, but the strategy you’re taking differs. Lay out all the information you know about your strategy and listen to theirs so you both have equal data points moving forward.
  3. Stay committed: the more you’re able to have these sorts of honest conversations, the better you’ll be at removing emotion and focusing on the outcome.

Managers: Creating an environment for open conversation

Most of us are only slightly biased but when pushed to our edges in a two-party dialogue we find polarization.

When there’s no space to disagree, every divergence in opinion that arises on the team is painful. If you’re a manager, create a dedicated space for conversation. 1-1 meetings on a weekly or bi-weekly basis are a great way to talk with reports and teammates about worries, goals, and frustrations.

Generally speaking, the things everyone agrees on tend to be known, but the ideas at the edges — the ones that often push us to think out of the box and try new things, to succeed and to fail — that can cause disagreements. Pushing ourselves to a space where judgment is required helps move our organizations forward and build character in individuals. Everyone should be able to effectively operate in that space, but it’s not easy.

Most of us are only slightly biased but when pushed to our edges in a two-party dialogue we find polarization; we defend our points with more fervor and move further and further apart. If you’re a manager, be mindful of creating a feedback loop with your employees — explicitly state that you’re hearing them, or invite a third person to observe the polarization and help bring balance to the conversation.

Agreeing to disagree

Not having self-awareness can prove to be a blind spot for both managers and individual contributors. The work you put into this practice will help you tremendously not only throughout your career, but in your life.

To remain open, continually understand the goals of your goals, and revisit them regularly. Managers should understand shared goals of their team, as it’s the foundation of their work. If you’re not a manager, don’t shy away from the opportunity to bring your point to the table, especially if you believe you possess knowledge your manager may not.

Disagreements at work can be a healthy way to question goals and strategies, and to push both yourself and your organization to try new things. But not every disagreement has to be resolved. As long as both individuals keep thinking about the data points, revisit goals, and try new things, progress is being made.

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