Disagree well

Bank Holiday weekends (and particularly the Monday) seem to challenge radio stations.

Since I can remember they have responded to the challenge of replacing their normal schedule by filling it with endless lists.  These are normally something along the lines of the 100 ‘Best’ (take your pick) The Beatles/love/country/classical/films/…  It was therefore something of a relief to discover that Radio 4 had not bowed to the pressure to put on the ‘100 Best Political Interviews’ or Archers episodes this weekend and stuck to the normal schedule that provides the backdrop to my pottering on a Sunday morning.

Part of the morning service was a reflection on the idea of ‘disagreeing well’ – a term the Archbishop of Canterbury had used in a speech in the House of Lords after the Brexit vote.  The speaker on Radio 4, Edmund Newell, recalled a man who was dying in a hospice, unreconciled with his brother with whom he had had an argument decades before and not since spoken to.  He talked of Amy Buller who had engaged in challenging dialogue with members of the Nazi party before the Second World War not from a position of appeasement or sympathy but rather to stand up to them.  History may judge her to have been naïve but her disagreements with the Nazis were open, frank and direct.

‘Disagreeing well’ is a term I had not heard before to describe a concept that I am familiar with – that of constructive or supportive challenge.  Most of us fortunately do not have the Nazis to deal with, and our relations with our family rarely lead to a complete breakdown in communication.  What we are all regularly faced with in our work and home lives are differences of opinion or approach.  The way we deal with those with a different view (we can choose either to engage constructively or to avoid them) has a huge influence on the outcomes we experience.

It is generally accepted that a diversity of thinking and challenge in a team produces better results.  It avoids narrowness of vision, tests assumptions that may be wrong and prevents groupthink.  The difficulty is that challenge can come across as personal, about point-scoring and may lead to a breakdown in relationships.  I have witnessed, at Board level, an entirely positive and collaborative mood flip, as a result of a challenge being taken badly, to one of sulky defensiveness.  It is the result of ‘disagreeing badly’ and it took some skill by the Chair to turn it around by getting everyone to confront what was going on.

So how do you get teams to ‘disagree well’?  In the spirit of the those ‘Best of’ lists I started with here are my ‘Top 3’:

  1. It is and is not personal. Recognise that individual team members’ experiences and backgrounds determine how they interpret a particular situation or event.  Don’t be surprised if others have a different standpoint to yours – it does not make them wrong.
  2. Focus on the outcome. The aim of collaborative working is to reach the best outcome by using the combined talents of the team not for an individual to win at the expense of others.  Be open to others’ ideas and build on them – it is rare that one person has the whole answer.
  3. Be candid and respectful. Don’t leave the room having failed to put your point across and getting sulky.  At the same time, give others space to put their views across.  If chairing a meeting look out for those who are shutting down – they probably have something to say.

Few of us are sociopaths who enjoy conflict, but running away from disagreement may well be the worst approach to take both at work and home, the trick is to do it well.

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