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.
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