All this talk of teamwork and bravery has got me thinking about disagreement. In my post on “Vision Days” I mentioned that an important step of any Vision Day is to “deal with unresolved disagreements” but I didn’t go into the all important question of how we do that.
A lot of us run from disagreement. I understand – disagreement often seems to lead to conflict, and whilst conflict isn’t necessarily bad, it isn’t exactly fun either. I believe disagreement is really important, though. In fact, I would go as far as saying that space for disagreement is an essential element of a good team; as much as I really don’t enjoy conflict, space to disagree is something I value highly, in teams, in personal relationships and in the public sphere.
I value space for disagreement in teams and in personal relationships because of what it does for those relationships. I think acceptance coupled with disagreement is a pathway to being known; space for disagreement allows me to get to know the parts of people that I might not otherwise have the privilege of seeing, and I know that if I feel free to disagree with someone, I also feel free to be more fully myself with that person. Disagreement allows us to understand each other in complex, nuanced ways, instead of resorting to clichés, stereotypes, assumptions and prejudices (“well obviously…,” “you wouldn’t want…” or “people who think that are this type of person…”). I see openness to disagreement as a sign of respect: “What you have to say is worth listening to, not dismissing.”
Disagreement also sharpens and clarifies our thinking, prompting us to work out why we disagree and what, specifically, we disagree on. It can give us insights that we wouldn’t otherwise think about. I have often found that when I disagree with someone it is because we are each emphasising different sides of the same coin, and talking about it brings the whole ‘coin’ into focus in a way that couldn’t have happened without the initial disagreement. Other times disagreement is rooted in semantics, and the conversation forces us to define our terms, bringing greater clarity to the discussion. Sometimes disagreement comes from the weight we put on different values, and hearing the values behind why someone disagrees with me stimulates consideration of an important point of view that I hadn’t considered. Disagreement can kindle new ideas, as we search for overlapping ground, or seek solutions that take into account a wider range of perspectives and values than we started with. Disagreement can also be fertile ground for persuasion; I know disagreements have shifted my opinions of things many times, and I’m glad for that.
Disagreement also ensures that our agreements are built on strong foundations.
So disagreement is important, but can be uncomfortable. The key is to learn to disagree well, something that having Vision Days has helped me with enormously.
On our Vision Days, we start with the value that space to disagree is essential. This is in the context of a relationship in which we agree on enough that we can work together well – we have a shared set of values, we have common goals, and we have a sufficiently similar overall vision that creates the framework within which we work out disagreements. Disagreement is important in all spheres, but in order to be a team (which is a different thing than just learning from each other), in order to really work together, I believe you have to have some agreements to use as your foundation.
The expression “agree to disagree” usually means “agree to avoid conflict by giving up on persuading each other,” or to put it another way “agree to disagree passively” but I think that a better way to “agree to disagree” is to use agreements to create a solid foundation and some safe boundaries within which you can actively disagree. In other words, agree so that you can disagree (so that you can agree) – use agreement and disagreement to create a virtuous circle. Disagreements are a gift, an offering of trust, and once offered they are a very useful thing to work with, so we make sure our Vision Days are a safe space to be honest about what we think; we want to explore the points of disagreement because we bring such strength to each other through doing so. If we agreed on everything, we would be quite a one-dimensional team. We recognise that our different strengths, emphases and perspectives are part or what allow us to be more than the sum of our parts.
I think that agreements – shared values – are really the key to working well with disagreements, and a crucial agreement is to treat each other with respect. At the very least, respectful disagreement means listening, not being dismissive, really trying to understand the other person’s perspective, being honest, investing the time and effort needed to explain your point of view, and managing yourself. In the history of the world (at least four times) it has happened that disagreements have triggered fear and anxiety and led to shouting, mocking and even name-calling. Personally I’m all for passionate disagreement, but passion is no excuse for resorting to selfishness, domination or meanness. The point of disagreement in teamwork is to use the disagreement to achieve your common goal, not to win an argument.
Let me repeat that: the point in teamwork is to use the disagreement to achieve your common goal, not to win an argument.
This means that each of us has to manage ourselves; we are each responsible for controlling how we behave. If you’re getting too triggered to manage yourself in the conversation, you may need to take some time out to work out what you’re feeling, and maybe, what you’re scared of.
One thing that really helps us is knowing that neither of us is going to resort to trying to steamroller a decision. The disagreement is a tool for achieving our common goal of reaching a decision, yes, but we’re not going to jump ahead and try and force a decision on the other person. We’ve set aside a Vision Day to give ourselves time, so we have time, and we take time. Even once a decision is made we will check in with each other: “Have we decided? I think we have, and I think that the decision is this.” Time to explore a disagreement without fear of being rushed into a commitment we don’t feel ready to make really helps us a lot.
The vast majority of the time, even if we start off disagreeing, by the time we’ve talked something out, listened, understood the differences and considered the topic from various angles, we find we agree.
If we don’t, we have a handful of strategies we draw on, depending on what kind of disagreement we still have. If it’s a disagreement about something that doesn’t need an immediate decision, sometimes we’ll put it on the back burner, talk about it on and off at home, and see where we are with it next time we have a Vision Day. If it’s a disagreement that doesn’t need a decision at all, we’ll treat it as a chance to have go to know each other better, a chance to develop our own thinking and an interesting topic of conversation. We don’t have to agree on everything!
If a decision is needed, we have listened to each other and discussed it at length, and we still don’t agree, our first strategy is almost always to take more time to pray about it. We both get a lot of insight and wisdom from God through prayer, and sometimes that insight goes against our initial instincts, so this is a wonderfully helpful strategy. We also seek outside input from other people who we trust and respect. Sometimes another person can give you that seed of wisdom you need to see something from a different perspective, to facilitate understanding, or to present a new option.
We might also try going away and thinking, reflecting or journaling about something more and then come back together to see if there is any movement or previously unseen points of overlap. We respect each other a lot, so if we fundamentally disagree we ask ourselves “What is it in that perspective that I’m missing, since it seems so wrong to me and yet it seems so right to this person I respect?” Even if we don’t then come back with agreement, we may come back together with a greater empathy for the other person’s perspective, which helps a lot in working towards a solution.
If our disagreement is one of emphasis, rather than of substance, we’ll often look for overlap. We’ve learned over the years that when we have different perspectives it’s often because we’re each emphasising different elements of a paradoxical truth, so our point of overlap is actually a stronger position than either of our instincts. We try to brainstorm solutions that take into account both emphases, leading us to much better solutions than we could have come up with without the disagreement.
A similar strategy, when action needs to be taken, is to talk about what actions sit within the overlap of our perspectives. For example, at work there were times when one of us wanted to take the charity in a particular direction and whilst the other didn’t particularly disagree with that direction, we weren’t sure it was important enough to justify fallout in another arena, such as, for example, the hard-won trust of a particular community. The solution was to find an action which moved the charity in the desired direction, but did so in a way that protected the relationships of trust we had built, like for example starting a discussion with that community about the new direction. From that first action, we can often build action upon action till we get to a place we hadn’t previously envisioned. For example, the community in question might have ideas and resources we hadn’t thought of. Taking an action that we can both commit to wholeheartedly is a great solution, and often opens up new insights and avenues, too.
(Click on the pictures to enlarge them.)
We’ll also look for overlap if our disagreement is based on our personal limits. For example, in a discussion about how to run our household we may both want convenience and environmental friendliness, but we disagree on how far to compromise on the competing values. One of us may feel we can’t, at this stage, bring ourselves to go to quite the level of inconvenience the other person is advocating. It’s good to work realistically here, so bearing in mind that most decisions are temporary, we will make a decision that falls within both of our ranges. Have you ever noticed that most people talk about themselves as having ‘a position’ but in reality most of us work within ranges? This is helpful for problem solving! Later we’ll revisit our solution, to see if we need or want to shift ourselves in one direction or another along the continuum.
Sometimes, of course, a decision isn’t that important to one of us, so we’ll just let the other person make it. Other times, it does feel important, but we’ll decide to give up our way anyway, and support the other person in what they want to do, because that’s teamwork. There are times when both of us will shift a little, and we’ll compromise. The fact that most decisions are temporary is brilliant; we can nearly always try a compromise for a while, and then see how we feel having lived it.
I suppose, in theory, we could reach a disagreement impasse. I’ve thought about what it would take for that to happen. We’d have to find ourselves:
- even after respectful listening and discussion
- on something we both thought was so important we couldn’t bring ourselves to compromise
- with no points of overlap
- and no avenues for resolution despite prayer, reflection, and wise outside counsel
- on an issue that needs action
- permanent action
Unsurprisingly, it’s never happened.
It could happen. I’m not saying it never happens. In some teams, on some issues, it would be a deal breaker. On others, one person would choose to give way. They’d do it for the sake of the team, or for the sake of love.
It could happen, but it’s rare, and the benefits of creating space for disagreement are great. So let’s be people who are willing to disagree, because we know how to do it well.
Featured image by Pixabay user Kimera
Diagrams by Rachel Hughes Shah