Ally Yates is an expert on behaviour analysis and the interactions that define us, and she sets out ways to work effectively through disagreements in the workplace.
“That won’t work”, “No, I can’t accept that”, - are just a couple of the phrases we hear in every day conversation when people express their disagreement. The impact of these protestations can sometimes be unintentionally negative. Too much disagreement can damage both the relationships and the effectiveness of the interactions. And those who flex their disagreeing muscle more often gain a reputation for being awkward, negative, unconstructive. Who wants to work with someone like that? Who aspires to being a nay-sayer?
When teams and groups are working effectively they use Disagreeing and Supporting verbal behaviours in equal amounts. There’s a balance to the interactions. A yin and a yang.
Here, Disagreeing is defined as “Making a clear statement of disagreement with someone else’s statement, idea or approach, or raising objections.” Supporting, on the other hand is “a clear statement of agreement or support for a person or their statement, opinion, idea or approach.” Working through disagreement is an important part of a working group’s process. It typically leads to greater understanding and better quality solutions. The best relationships are built on the ability to manage tensions as much as the desire to support one another. However, when disagreement isn’t expressed verbally it finds other ways of making itself heard.
Adam, a senior manager in an energy business, told me the story of a project manager in one of his meetings: ‘We were discussing how to handle a difficult issue and this guy was wriggling in his seat, his face was all screwed up as if he were trying to contain an outburst. It was clear that he felt uncomfortable about what was being suggested but he didn’t say anything.’
Our brains are pattern-recognition systems, designed to pick up on things that deviate from the norm. Adam’s brain had detected something was amiss, because the project manager was ‘leaking’ emotionally, showing clear, non-verbal indications of his discomfort. Even when we’re not saying something verbally we are often expressing ourselves in other ways. The downside here is that we can often be accused of being unskillful, devious or downright rude. Better then, to find ways to communicate our reactions more skilfully.
Where the project manager was silent, others can be unhelpfully vocal. Labelling your disagreements are a sure-fired way to create further dissent. Labelled Disagreeing might sound like: ‘I disagree with that because…’ and then the speaker goes on to give the reasons. It’s a form of expression used by less behaviourally skillful people and it drives up the ante in interactions. A labelled disagreement can be interpreted as a threat or an attack, triggering an area in the brain called the amygdala. This is the home of our fight, flight or freeze responses.
Once someone has declared their objection, others will typically either be stunned into silence, retreat or react immediately, mustering their counter-arguments. There’s a dearth of listening and an absence of exploring the various arguments., often leading to a communications shutdown.
Between these two extremes of taciturnity and declaration lie four more constructive alternatives: Stating reasons before disagreeing, Testing Understanding, Giving Feelings and Building.
1) Sharing your reasons for disagreeing before declaring your position gives people missing information and a context. This can be used as a basis for exploration and deeper understanding. For example, a colleague suggests that Al Pacino is in the all-time top three great movie actors. Rather than label your disagreement you might say: 'You can judge greatness in a number of ways, for example: diversity of roles, range, subtlety. I don't think Pacino matches up on all those counts, compared with Anthony Hopkins, Dustin Hoffman or Tom Hanks.' This allows others to understand the basis for your position and a more fruitful discussion can follow.
2) Testing Understanding. This seeks to test an assumption or check out whether a previous contribution has been understood. For example, Manager One says: ‘Nick has been a consistently high performer across all aspects of his work.’ Rather than directly disagree, Manager Two might say: ‘High across all three categories – core work, projects and safety?’. His questioning invites all those present to reflect and consider the answer. It drives up the level of clarity, ensuring everyone is on the same page.
3) Giving Feelings. This is an expression of how you feel about what’s happening in any given interaction. For example, ‘I’m feeling uncomfortable that we’re focusing on revenue and not safety as well.’ (versus ‘I disagree with your idea’.)
4) Building. Defined as ‘Extending or developing a proposal made by another person’, Building is uncommon because it requires us to listen to what’s being said. It also demands that we let go of our own sense of ‘rightness’.
If you disagree with an idea, for example, you can use Building to shape the suggestion in a slightly different direction, as in this example:
Juliet: Can we focus the conference on breaking down silos?
David: We could have representatives of each department in every break-out session as a way of addressing that in a practical way, which would allow us to widen the theme.
Of the four alternatives to Disagreeing, Building is the most skilful and the one likely to have the most positive impact.
So, rather than be fearful of disagreeing, or risk being seen as objectionable, build variety into your behavioural repertoire. And remember, the most skilled performers disagree and react in equal measure. This means that for every time you show your dissent, however skilfully, you will also be positively recognising other people for their contributions. Just like the Yin and Yang, the two halves together create wholeness.
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