I was at an event recently where someone asked me what our business is about. I explained in a short sentence or two. Then based on that, without really knowing anything about what we do, the person said “I feel I must challenge you on that“, and then proceeded to tell me why I’m wrong.
And a situation like that is difficult to handle. I didn’t agree with them at all. That person came from a very different perspective, and demographic to me, and crucially didn’t actually know anything about our business. And if I had reacted by disagreeing, it’s very likely that they would have said I was being difficult or argumentative.
Why is that? Why do these situations feel so challenging?
Well, it’s because so many of us struggle to disagree with each other. And we struggle to listen to, or empathise with people we do not agree with.
And 66% of people feel stressed or anxious about conversations.
11% of people have nightmares about them
43% say what causes the stress is not knowing how the other person will respond.
So can we agree to disagree? Here’s some ideas.
We can have different opinions
What we’re not saying is that we all suddenly have to agree with each other about everything. There are going to be different opinions between individuals and groups. There are subjects we will disagree on, and there are perspectives we have which are different. What we need to be able to do, is respectfully disagree with each other.
There are always going to be contentious subjects and contentious situations. And there are subjects we know are likely to cause disagreements. So, particularly in workplace discussions, it’s often best to avoid subjects like politics and religion. Or accept that there are going to be different opinions on those things and think about how to handle disagreements.
If you are running group discussions or teams, there are going to be people who disagree with each other about all sorts of things.
And actually, that’s what we want. There are lots of statistics that show that diverse perspectives result in more innovation and new ideas. So what we need to do is think about how to create safe spaces for people to disagree and still be able to communicate and work with each other.
Listen, be honest and learn
For people to be able to hold different opinions we need to make sure we all listen to each other. It’s easy to bristle as someone says something you don’t agree with and stop listening to what they are saying as you prepare your counter-argument in response. Actually what we need to do is to listen to the other person and expect them to listen to us too.
And there needs to be a level of great honesty.
I know there are some subjects where I am unlikely to change my mind, and I will not be the only one who feels that way. What we need to do when someone has a different opinion is to hear them out and listen. It’s very difficult to do, but it’s about being respectful to a different opinion. This is the reason why most people are drawn to people more like themselves. It’s more comfortable. Communicating with people with a different opinion to you requires the willingness to listen, the honesty to say clearly if you don’t agree with that person, and the openness to you and them learning something new.
Use facts instead of emotions
It’s so hard to keep your cool and keep your emotions under control when it’s something you feel strongly about. When the person who spoke to me to disagree with our business was talking, it was very hard not to talk over them and disagree. What we actually need to do in these situations is to keep calm, and use facts instead of emotions to have a conversation with someone we disagree with.
Different situations can make us behave differently when we disagree with people too. When it’s online, there seems to be more courage from people to hurl personal insults at others. Take a look at your favourite social media platform and you’re likely to find many examples of this.
So using facts will help you to counteract any of this and find ways to disagree with people respectfully. Give your opinion with some facts to show why you think something, and listen to the facts someone else is offering you with a counter argument.
And always try and keep calm and keep emotions and making things very personal out of the conversation as much as you can.
Exploring how to disagree with people, how to create safe spaces for people to do that, and frameworks you can use to help you with your work is something we explore in our training courses. To explore how to disagree with people and how to handle challenging situations, we have a training course called Challenging Conversations. In this course we look at how to handle difficult conversations and how you can learn to disagree with people.
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