Productive Conflict: How to Disagree Like a Champion

Emily had seen some things.

By the time she became Head of Marketing for one of the biggest circuses in the world — I mean a literal circus — she had consulted for Fortune 500 companies, started two media companies, and served as an advisor on everything from television shows to non-profits. She had developed a reputation as a warm, self-assured, whip-smart person who wasn’t afraid of telling her clients the truth, even — and especially — when they didn’t want to hear it.

When she got to the circus, she realized just how different her marketing vision was from that of her bosses. The CMO, who hired her to get some fresh blood and new perspective, wanted to build a live entertainment juggernaut. She knew that in order to survive, they’d have to become a full-fledged media company. And that was just the beginning of their disagreement. On everything from operations to branding, they often had profound differences in opinion, even though they deeply respected each other as colleagues.

Over breakfast a few months into her new job, she told me all about the tough conversations, surprising rifts, and unexpected conflicts she was having with her boss. And yet she seemed radiant. Like, genuinely stoked to be dealing with all of it. As she described one especially tense exchange, where she basically told the CMO he was missing something huge about a new ticketing strategy, she was almost smiling.

“How do you tell your CMO he’s straight-up wrong?” I asked.

“I just tell him,” she said, sipping from her latte.

“Yeah, but he’s your boss, right? Aren’t you, like, worried about disagreeing with the head of the company?”

“He hired me to tell him the truth,” she said with total conviction. “That’s why I’m there.”

“Right, but — isn’t that scary?”

“Oh, yeah. Of course it is. But here’s how I think of it: He hired me for my expertise. I have an obligation to give it to him. If I don’t, I’m not living up to my commitment, and I’m definitely not doing right by the company. I’m a strategist, not a politician. My job sometimes is to say the thing they don’t want to hear.

Which is a great point. But still, I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that bold disagreement was such a big part of her job. What about her relationships? Her reputation?

“Actually, it’s made our relationship better,” she explained. “My boss knows I’m not a bullsh*tter. I don’t disagree with him because I enjoy being difficult; I disagree because I care.”

I’ve thought about this conversation a lot since then. About how important it is for us to be honest at work, and how rarely we actually are, because we’re so attuned to the power dynamics of what we say and do at work.

And yet conflict is a huge part of our lives, professionally and personally. In fact, it’s one of the most important means of arriving at better solutions. So why are we so bad at it?

Our Hidden Weakness

According to the CPP Global Human Capital Report, 85% of employees around the world encounter conflict to some degree, and almost one third deal with it “always” or “frequently.”

Those conflicts have all sorts of causes, according to Psychometrics: warring egos and personality clashes (86%), poor leadership (73%), lack of honesty (67%), stress (64%), and clashing values (59%).

18% of those surveyed, meanwhile, indicated that their management and leadership are not at all effective at dealing with conflict, while 63% said that they are only somewhat effective.

The costs of not engaging in conflict are high too: 25% of employees say that avoiding conflict resulted in sickness or absence from work, to say nothing of the immeasurable impact of conflict avoidance — and poor communication generally — on company performance.

So generally speaking, we’re not too great at conflict.

Because let’s be honest: conflict is really difficult. It’s inherently fraught, messy, and scary. It’s highly emotional. It often involves issues that are deeply personal and meaningful. And it depends on parts of our brain that are wired for some of the uglier parts of the human ego — the need to be right, the need to self-protect, and the desire to be victorious.

Which makes it pretty damn hard to disagree gracefully. Even the greatest communicators get angry, flustered, or confused when they find themselves in conflict. I know I do.

Emily, meanwhile, has somehow found a way to lean into conflict and disagree with people — especially people more powerful than she is — and make them trust her even more as a result!

How?

That’s what we’ll be exploring with these 10 Principles of Productive Conflict: concepts and techniques for disagreeing with people while preserving your relationships, integrity, happiness, and social capital.

And it all starts with this first crucial stage…

Understand your motivation for disagreeing.

Before you decide to speak up in a meeting, object to a decision, or critique someone’s position, it’s absolutely critical to take a moment to understand why.

Now this might seem obvious. “Because it’s a bad idea!” you might be thinking. “Because they’re not thinking about the downside!” “Because this plan would be better if we consider my ideas.” All of which could totally be true.

But beneath these conscious rationales is always a much deeper intention driving your desire to disagree. These hidden needs and desires underlie every decision we make and every word we choose, so it’s super important that we understand them before we speak.

In my experience, a few of the most common personal motivations for disagreeing include:

  • a need to be right (or a resistance to being wrong or “losing”)
  • a need to be recognized (or validated, or “seen”)
  • a desire to look good (or competent, or smart)
  • a need to be in control (or to undermine someone else’s control)
  • a desire to feel useful or necessary (or to avoid looking expendable)
  • a desire to justify one’s position (or role, or salary)

Let me be clear: None of these needs or desires are inherently bad. We’re not here to judge whether your motivations for disagreeing are positive or negative, healthy or unhealthy. That’s a really interesting question — and definitely worth exploring! — but at this stage, we’re just trying to get a handle on the why.

I was recently talking to Adam, an AoC Bootcamp grad and hardware engineer, who found himself in a really tough dynamic with another guy at work. In almost every design meeting, Adam found himself disagreeing with most of his colleague’s beliefs about their product — everything from which features it should have to who the end user was. It didn’t help that he found his colleague brash, dismissive, and (in his words) straight-up rude as a person, which made it even harder to engage with him productively on work stuff.

These weren’t two guys navigating conflict. Their relationship was conflict.

The first thing I asked Adam was why he felt the need to disagree with his colleague so often.

“Because he’s wrong,” he said, without missing a beat.

“It sounds like he often is,” I responded, “but –”

“And he acts like a dick.”

“Right,” I said, starting to see how reactive, how justified, Adam’s drive to conflict had become. “But why do you think you keep disagreeing, even when it doesn’t get you results?

There was a long silence. The sound of someone being forced to confront something they hadn’t considered.

“I guess I don’t like that the team usually listens to his ideas.”

“I get that. Why else?”

“I hate that someone who can’t even empathize with our users gets to dictate product features.”

“Yup. Any other reasons?”

Adam sighed. “I just really love this product, you know? And I like getting to decide what it looks like. I don’t want it to suck just because this guy talks louder than everyone else.”

Suddenly, Adam realized just how much his unconscious needs and desires were propelling him to conflict. It wasn’t that he was in the wrong, or had bad intentions. But because he wasn’t in touch with his true motivations, he found himself engaging in conflict without really understanding why he felt compelled to disagree.

About six weeks later, he dropped me a note telling me how things were going at work. He booked lunch with his teammate a few days after we spoke, and told him all the reasons he had been disagreeing with him in meetings. This time, he began by explaining how much he loved the product, how much he wanted to be a part of its success, and how he didn’t like feeling marginalized as a teammate when it came to product decisions.

Just like that, he explained in the email, the energy around their relationship ratcheted down, and they were able to look at their relationship from the same side of the table — as two people with a real stake in its success.

Interestingly, Adam said this conversation was still pretty difficult. The other guy had his own points to make — including some problems he saw with the way Adam worked — that Adam hadn’t considered. Their conflict didn’t disappear, but by talking about their underlying motivations for disagreeing with each other, they starting speaking the same language. They suddenly began empathizing with each other, and their team meetings transformed. Even though they still have their conflicts, Adam says he actually enjoys navigating them now. Meanwhile, their product has steadily improved.

So before you decide to disagree, get very clear about what’s driving that impulse. Consider writing down the whys of your conflict. If it’s helpful, talk it out with a trusted friend or colleague.

And take your time with this stage. Waiting until you get a good handle on your underlying intentions is always a wise investment. As Nietzsche said, “He who cannot put his thoughts on ice should not enter into the heat of dispute.” Word up, Neetch.

In many cases, going through this stage will actually remove the impulse to disagree. Once we recognize our true needs, we either realize that we can’t fulfill them through conflict, or we find another way of getting those needs met. We also avoid the very human tendency to catastrophize a situation — making it seem more urgent or problematic than it really is — which is the mind’s way of justifying our innate drive to conflict.

In other cases, recognizing our true needs actually makes our disagreement more important. But then it also makes us kinder, more sophisticated, more conscious disagreers — because we’re not just acting on our murky impulses, but navigating conflict with a strong handle on the full spectrum of our motivations.

If I decide to actually express a disagreement, I like to open the conversation by expressing them. Not all intentions need to be shared — you probably wouldn’t want to begin a conversation by saying, “So I really need to be right about this” — but when those intentions help pave the way for a more productive conversation (e.g., “I want you to know that I have some concerns about the way we work together, and it’s only because I love this product and want to be a part of making it awesome”), then I’ll definitely begin by sharing them. You can see how differently a disagreement would go just by starting from that place of openness.

Develop, test, and refine your disagreement.

Before you decide to express a disagreement, take the time to really understand your argument. This might seem self-evident, but it’s remarkable how many people rush into disagreement once they feel justified.

What does it mean to understand your argument?

  • Having a good handle on your why, and being able to articulate those intentions.
  • Knowing the concrete points you want to make, and how they differ from the other person’s point of view.
  • Identifying the flaws, risks, and downsides of your perspective, and using those weaknesses to strengthen your argument or revise your point of view.
  • Anticipating the other person’s response to your argument, empathizing with their point of view, finding the merits in their argument, and using these insights to refine your perspective.

Emily is the master of this. She does her homework like no one I’ve ever seen, understands her points inside and out, then carves out time to pressure-test her ideas. Along the way, she anticipates criticisms, incorporates new information and objections, and always remains open to changing her mind and arriving at a better position.

Again, all of this seems so straightforward it’s almost obvious. But how many times have you seen people — at the office or in your personal life — engage in conflict without really understanding themselves or their opponent? How many times have you done that in your own life? I know I’ve done it dozens of times, which is why I’m so conscious of preparing the right way.

Be conscious of your social capital.

As we all know, social capital is the sum total of our value, utility, influence, and connection with other people — the raw material of our relationships.

When we disagree with someone, we automatically invoke the social capital we’ve built up, because we’re disagreeing with another human being who has her own social capital.

In conflict, our social capital has a huge role in dictating how our conflict comes across. Is it warranted? Is it meaningful? Is it appropriate? Is it welcome? For obvious reasons, all of these questions depend on the value we’ve built up in our relationships — with our opponent and with those around the conflict.

So as you navigate your disagreements, consider how your social capital enters the equation. Some good questions to ask yourself include:

  • Have I proven myself as a trusted and thoughtful collaborator before disagreeing?
  • How does the other party’s social capital affect the potential outcome of our disagreement?
  • Have I “earned” the right to disagree in this relationship or context? (This is especially important in professional settings.)
  • How will this conflict affect my and my opponent’s social capital? Will it diminish or enhance our social capital in the long term? Will either of us risk our social capital in the interim?
  • Is there a way to handle this disagreement in a way that protects (and hopefully enhances) our social capital?

In general, a smart strategy is to build up your social capital before you need it. This means fostering relationships in and around the conflict that are positive, generous, and productive so that when conflicts arise — and they always will — you already have a strong foundation to work with.

A final word here.

Being conscious of your social capital means being self-aware about how your conflict affects other people. It’s also tempting to become so obsessed with this question that it overshadows the other principles of conscious conflict.

Here’s a good rule of thumb: If you find yourself fixating on social capital (who has it, how much, how to keep it, etc.) at the expense of effective communication, then you’ve lost sight of the goal. At that point, we just become politicians — which, as we saw in Emily’s case, is the enemy of successful disagreement.

Notice that these first three stages — getting a handle on our intentions, building up our social capital, and understanding our arguments — are all focused on us. We have to do the work in our side of the equation before we try to work on the other.

As the teacher Bryon Katie puts it, “Peace doesn’t require two people; it requires only one. It has to be you. The problem begins and ends there.”

You could substitute “conscious conflict” for “peace,” and it’s just as true.

Present your argument clearly and succinctly.

The point of stage two (preparing) is to deliver your disagreement eloquently and briefly.

I try to keep my opening thoughts short and sweet so we can get to an exchange of ideas as quickly as possible. The goal of a disagreement isn’t to indulge in a long monologue, but to explain your position in a way that promotes a more productive conversation. Along the way, it can help to return to your motivations to keep the conversation open and non-combative — “And just to be clear, I’m disagreeing here because I want to see the best features make their way into the product, not because I think I have all the answers.”

In a way, the key to good conflict is to collaborate with the other person on resolving it, which means avoiding the tendency to dominate the exchange.

Listen.

The other secret to disagreeing consciously and respectfully is listening.

We’ve covered this topic endlessly on the blog and the podcast, so I’ll just point you to one of my favorite primers on the topic: our interview with Julian Treasure on conscious listening. Revisit those concepts, then work them into your disagreements. There’s probably no better tool in the conflict toolkit than truly listening to your opponent. Not only does it ensure that you’re considering all sides, but it signals to the other person that you take them — and their ideas — seriously.

In general, I’d say 80% (at least) of my conversations are spent listening. Even when I’m speaking, I try to stay focused on the other person’s experience of the exchange — how they’re processing what I’m saying, how they’re responding with their body language and voice, and, of course, the words they’re choosing in response.

In many ways, listening is the linchpin of all conflict resolution. If you can master this skill, then your disagreements will immediately become more effective.

Stay aware of your emotional response.

Once you become aware of how conflict gets wired in the brain and body, it becomes much easier to stay kind, open, and empathic, even when you disagree. Just noticing when you get emotional (or shut down) is half the battle. I consciously work to notice when my feelings creep into a disagreement, so I can separate them out from my position.

If those feelings become unavoidable — which often happens in conflict, especially when it’s important — I’ll literally call them out: “Okay, so I’m getting frustrated right now, and I just want you to know that it’s because I really care about this conversation.” It’s amazing how that kind of transparency can take the edge off of a disagreement.

Once again, this is why having a grasp of those underlying intentions is so powerful. They can help bring you and your opponent closer together in an argument, and defuse any tension that arises along the way.

Trust that there are two sides to every conflict.

Remember that part our job is to understand our opponent’s positions (even if we’re totally right on this one!), and that the goal of most disagreements isn’t to “win,” but to navigate the conflict in such a way that creates a better solution, a stronger relationship, and greater overall happiness and peace.

I’ll say that again, because if there’s one thing we take away from this piece, it’s this.

The goal of most conflicts isn’t to “win,” but to navigate your disagreement in a way that creates a better solution, a stronger relationship, and greater overall happiness and peace.

So as you disagree, remember that your perspective is only one of several possible points of view. As difficult as it is, try to understand where your opponent is coming from — and, more important, why. Even if you believe you’re right, this habit will keep you open, empathic, and well-informed, which is exactly what it takes to be successful in conflict.

It will also protect your relationship, which is how you build even more social capital through conflict. This is part of Emily’s toolkit — empathizing with her opponents even as she disagrees.

Focus on ideas, not people.

Dealing with ideas means avoiding ad hominem attacks against the other person — the way Adam worked to avoid harping on his colleague’s brashness — and focusing instead on their arguments.

The flipside of this principle is to keep the focus on your ideas, and avoid indulging the desire to bring your emotional responses or personal feelings into the conversation. You can still be in touch with your feelings as you move through the conversation — there’s no need to suppress or ignore your emotional experience — but remember that the best conflict is about positions, not people; ideas, not feelings.

Of course, this takes a ton of practice, because people’s positions are tightly woven into their personalities. Over time, you’ll learn how to untangle these two components, and keep the focus firmly on the argument at hand.

Remain open.

Ironically, to succeed in conflict, you have to be willing to admit you’re wrong.

This can be a tough pill to swallow for some of the best communications, because the better they become at preparing their arguments, the less willing they are to concede that they might be wrong. It takes years to cultivate true openness, and most people never succeed 100% of the time.

If you can navigate conflict with a strong grasp of your argument and a willingness to recognize the other person’s points — and maybe even to change your point of view entirely — then you’ll become a much more effective communicator. You’ll also become a better boss, a more empathic partner, and a richer human being. As we all know, life’s conflicts are rarely black and white, and they’re constantly shapeshifting. The more we remain open to changing our views, the more productive our conflicts become.

Pick the right timing.

Choosing when to disagree is part of the art of conflict. Timing might seem like a detail, but when it comes to highly charged disagreements, it can make or break the outcome. As Terry Goodkind wrote, “Knowing when to fight is just as important as knowing how.”

First, decide when it’s time for you to express a disagreement. As we covered in the first two stages, we have a huge amount of preparatory work (intentions and arguments) before we actually enter a conversation. Make sure you’ve done this work before you move forward.

Once you do decide to move forward, put yourself in your opponent’s shoes. Some good questions to consider include:

  • How would you respond — as the other person — if you were on the receiving end of your disagreement at this moment?
  • Is it a good time or a bad time to bring up the disagreement?
  • What’s happening around the conflict? Are there competing concerns that will make it difficult to really talk? Are there more pressing issues that need to be dealt with first?
  • Is this a disagreement best handled in a group setting or one-on-one?
  • What time of day would be ideal?

Really imagine the other person’s experience of you, and decide if this is the right moment to disagree.

Sometimes there’s never a “good” moment for conflict, and you’ll have to create one. But even then, being conscious of timing is key.

Sometimes it helps to be upfront and deliberate. Facing a tough conversation with a vendor recently, I wrote him to book a half-hour call for us to talk about ways to improve our service. This allowed us both to dedicate our time and attention, and signaled to my vendor that this really mattered to me.

Finally, make sure that your disagreement isn’t coming too early or too late. Sometimes we rush into conflict before it’s necessary — say, before a product has taken shape, or before a problem has even arisen. (Pro-tip: Consider carefully any disagreements about issues that are remote, conjectural, or highly abstract — in general, those situations don’t warrant major conflict.) In other cases, we wait too long, and speak up long after a key decision has been made, which makes the disagreement ineffective, unproductive or straight-up irrelevant.

There’s no science to the timing of disagreement. It’s an art, which means you have to use your observations and instincts to guide you. If you sense that it’s too early for a disagreement, revisit the issue down the line. If you sense that it’s too late, then either skip the disagreement or articulate it carefully — “I know I should have brought this up a few weeks ago, and I’m totally happy to continue as planned, but I feel it would be irresponsible not to consider a few other points…” Next time, you’ll be better equipped to bring up the disagreement before your window for productive conflict has closed. Again, it’s all practice.

Bottom line: consider how your disagreement will be perceived and whether it’ll open a necessary and productive conversation. If you do that homework, you generally can’t go wrong.

Conclusion

Once I began to really understand the principles of conscious conflict, I finally understood what made Emily so good at disagreements. She understood her intentions. She knew her positions. She presented her arguments masterfully, but never emotionally, and always remained open to changing her mind, which she found easy to do if she listened consciously. She always focused on ideas, not people, and her sense of timing was flawless. Most importantly, she had a ton of social capital to work with — and that social capital only increased the more she understood her motivations and empathized with her opponents.

And that’s the amazing thing about knowing how to disagree with people. If you do it right, then your relationships actually get better. Your rapport, connection and trust with other people gets deeper. It’s counterintuitive, because we generally tend to avoid conflict in our lives (an instinct with roots in our early evolution), but working through conflict well actually brings people closer together.

All we need is to understand the art of disagreement and the principles of conscious conflict. As Emily said, that’s our job — as professionals, as friends, as family members, and as human beings.

Jordan Harbinger - author of 924 posts on The Art of Charm

Jordan Harbinger has spent several years abroad in Europe and the developing world, including South America, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East, and speaks several languages. He has also worked for various governments and NGOs overseas, traveled through war zones, and been kidnapped -- twice. He’ll tell you the only reason he’s still alive and kicking is because of his ability to talk his way into (and out of) just about any type of situation. Here at The Art of Charm, Jordan shares that experience, and the system borne as a result, with students and clients.

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