Two cats arguing

Agreeing to Disagree

My Take

When two people or organizations can’t resolve a conflict, they often defer to the option of “agreeing to disagree.” This is not very satisfying to either side, but at least you can walk away from the negotiating table (or battle zone) with at least a temporary pause in active combat. I can’t convince you; you can’t convince me; so let’s just go our own ways and ignore the disagreement.

But this is not a good ending. It is a clear example of poor communication. Not because one side should be able to convince the other – it is possible that the different ways the two sides value underlying principles lead to legitimately different outcome preferences.

But if the reason is a different weighting of priorities (or any number of premises that lead to an unresolvable disagreement), it is better for the conclusion of the discussion to be a recognition of the other side’s priorities and weightings and why they lead to this different preferred outcome.

Understanding how the other side’s priorities and weightings lead to their preferred outcome presents several benefits to “agreeing to disagree.” First, the shared understanding shows the other side that you understand and are worth negotiating with in the future. Second, it helps the other side feel that they are respected and validated in their position. It might lead to better solutions than simply walking away. If not a consensus, at least a compromise (note, I am writing a piece about this distinction for next week). It also helps you validate yourself when the other side reciprocates in their understanding of your position.

We can imagine taking this route across the spectrum from the huge, unresolvable, global conflict (Israeli/Palestinian) to the local, individual dispute between friends who want to see different movies on a Saturday night.

Julian Stodd has an interesting example in the middle – differences in priorities between management and its workforce. This is an interesting blog that focused on social learning and community in organizational behavior. The blog is very reflective and sometimes very stream-of-consciousness. Perhaps an acquired taste. But there are often some valuable nuggets and I found this one to be a good example.

Controlling the channels of communication never prevents communication: it just makes stark the lack of permission and prompts creative attempts to subvert the authority. Opening up spaces to communicate and collaborate is a key aspect of eroding resistance and building a foundation for change.

He focuses on the stories that management and employees use to describe their position in the relationship. In what he considers the old world of top down authoritative management, senior leadership creates a static story about the “way things work around here” and forces this upon the workforce. They constrain the ability of employees to create their own, forcing it underground and limiting their influence to the peer-pressure and organizational climate of small groups among themselves. He acknowledges that there are often good reasons for this. Companies want to present a consistent narrative to outsiders such as customers or shareholders. If they are in a regulatorily sensitive sector such as pharmaceutical manufacturing or health care they might feel like they need to enforce the type of “safety is job one” attitude that regulations mandate.

The problem he sees is that when employees’ experience is different from this top-down story, they will find a way to share their opinions about it and their ideas about what is really going on. At best, this is done one-to-one when employees vent to each other. But it can snowball into the anonymous and public Twitter stream of employees revealing the company’s dirty laundry with the hashtag #companysucks or something like that. It is better for companies to recognize the difference. Rather than ignoring it (“agreeing to disagree”), they should seek to accommodate it somehow. At least validate the experience of the employees in the way I described at the start of this discussion.

In fact, they can create “listening posts” that show employees they are interested in their experiences, care about their ideas, and are willing to consider integrating it into the official story. While change might not occur immediately, at least it opens up a foundation for change.

Your Turn
I am not sure if Julian’s example is the greatest example of the problems with agreeing to disagree or if it demonstrates a completely different set of issues. So feel free to opine about either one. Together or individually.

As always, we look forward to hearing your ideas, opinions, and stories.

Image Credit: Found Animals Foundation

2 thoughts on “Agreeing to Disagree”

  1. Many years ago, a colleague share some wisdom with me by stating, “Please understand that just because I don’t agree with you doesn’t mean I don’t understand your position”. This has stuck with me for three decades now, and has helped me to appreciate the principle you stated in your article of “how the other side’s priorities and weightings lead to their preferred outcome”.

    This has made me decidedly aggressive to find the win-win in a conflict not by seeking the so-called “middle ground”, but by seeking discrete wins for both sides by understanding what they really feel passionately about. The truly thorny issues in morality and in politics are often characterized by a refusal of each side to consider the deeply held convictions and priorities of the other side. Gun control. Gay marriage. Abortion. Socialized medicine. Welfare. I could go on and on about these divisive topics, but the human factors of framing the discussion in terms of understanding the convictions and priorities has been largely ignored in the public debate and in Washington.

    “Seek first to understand” is more than a cliché… it needs to be a fundamental part of meaningful dialog. So, for example, the pro-life advocate is not trying to oppress women, nor is the pro-choice advocate seeking the wholesale slaughter of innocent babies. Rather, each constituency has priorities that are not fully appreciated by the opposing side. A middle ground compromise (e.g., ban abortions east of the Mississippi) is not an acceptable solution here to either faction, but there is still plenty of room to find ways to join forces make abortion rare through education, contraception, expanded economic opportunities, and so on. I use this as an example precisely because it can be so divisive and creates passionate debate. My goal here is not to engender a flame war, but to point out that reasoned dialog is needed in issues such as this.

    So, how do we use our human factors training to help here? I don’t have the magic solution here, but I’d recommend that role playing the opposing sides in debate may help. Ways of graphically representing the underlying motivations, values, convictions, and priorities that drive one to hold a position may also be helpful.

    1. Thanks Daniel. That is a great addition to the ideas in the article. “Seek first to understand” might be the most underused, undervalued approach to discussion and debate.

      Your example of abortion is a great one, perhaps as much because of the visceral emotion behind it as in spite of it. It makes people jump to their gut preference and gets them stuck there by the neurological processes that influence strong emotions (a topic we have discussed here before).

      Another challenge you may want to consider is the deceptive win-win. An abortion opponent can claim that they are happy to give a woman the right to choose, as long as we guarantee her the equally valuable right she has to make an informed choice. So she has to study the literature, take 24 hours to process it, and then decide. Sounds great in theory, but the underlying purpose is often to create such logistical problems that a large subgroup can’t do it. Same objective with hospital certifications, doctors having privileges at accredited hospitals, and so on.

      The black hat designer in me sees some malicious benefits of this approach. When negotiating, begin with a “seek first to understand” but then when you understand them, devise a complementary principle they have trouble disagreeing with but that creates this logistical constraint. Harder to argue against principles than logistics.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *