Many conflicts cannot be resolved. Therefore, to avoid disappearing into violence and chaos, we are going to have to live with difference and disagreement. We can disagree well, or we can disagree badly. It is a good idea to cultivate the skills to disagree well. The productive resolution of a difference of view need not be agreement, it can usefully be “disagreement success“. Disagreement success is not agreement, it is a recognition and acceptance of difference, and a willingness to deal with the complexity that difference entails.
This was the logic that Simon Keyes, Director of the St Ethelburga’s Centre for Peace and Reconciliation set out at a Symposium on Conflict Resolution hosted by Gresham College on 18 April 2013. Mr Keyes and his colleagues at St Ethelburga’s deal with conflicts in between religions, between nations, and between factions. The conflicts they address have the potential to end in violence and destruction.
In this post I’m going to adapt and apply the concept of disagreement success to difference and disagreement in business.
Very often in business, we tend to deny that there is disagreement: there’s a lot of “disagreement avoidance” that goes on. I think this is because in business we see disagreement as “failure”. If we can accept the concept of “disagreement success” then we can engage in the disagreement or difference, rather than avoid it.
The default business view is “Agreement – good, Disagreement – bad”. A successful meeting is said to be one in which agreement is reached. The effect of this value system is that disagreement is frowned on, passed quickly over, belittled, suppressed or ignored. As a result, it takes energy and courage to express a disagreement in a business meeting. Engagement in a dispute tends to be seen as a failure of process, or a defect of character. This is a pity, in my view, because a good disagreement is productive, honest, and exciting. Therefore I seize with enthusiasm onto Mr Keyes’ concept of “disagreement success”: the idea that if we are going to disagree, let’s do it well, rather than badly. Let’s become skilled at disagreeing. This is not at all the same thing as being skilled at winning the argument. This is a valuable, but different, skill. For disagreement success we must become skilled at accepting the disagreement , and co-existing productively with it.
“If we are going to disagree, let’s do it well, rather than badly”
In his talk, Mr Keyes pointed out that disagreement success is not agreement, but complexity.
Disagreement failure is conflict. In the cases which come to the St Ethelburga’s Centre, the conflict is potentially physical and violent. In business, the effects of disagreement failure are mutually destructive attempts to annihilate the other, by isolation, reputation damage, public humiliation and personal vilification.
Disagreement success implies living with complexity. It is preserving the relationship and continuing the dialogue, even though there is difference and disagreement. It is finding a way to co-exist and collaborate despite differences. In business this is an essential skill. If we find we have a difference of view, here are the steps we can take to disagreement success:
- Exercise curiosity rather than judgement – become interested in why the other person might hold the view they do
- Listen – pursue an accurate understanding of the other person’s position
- Maintain connection – decide that the relationship is not to be sacrificed because of this disagreement
- Depersonalise the argument – maintain a distinction in language between the person and the issue
- Develop the position – accept complexity, use understanding to discover possibility
- Take responsibility for finding a positive outcome – together we are powerful, and able to find a way of working
None of these are easy. All take practice, skill and discipline. I know that I’m going to find the concept of “disagreement success” useful in my business.