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4 Reasons We Disagree, and What to Do About It

You’re trying to get a new project approved, and you’re having trouble. Or you’re trying to get an employee to do things your way, and the employee keeps fighting you. Both these situations are disagreements, and the process to deal with them is similar.

Why Do We Disagree?
Let’s start with individual disagreements. When two people disagree, it’s usually for one or more of these four reasons:

  1. Objective
    What one person wants to accomplish is different than what the other person wants.
  2. Method
    They may agree on the objective, but they have differing opinions on the best way to achieve the objective.
  3. Communication
    They may agree on both the objective and the method, but they don’t realize it. They keep arguing, and because of miscommunication they each get the impression that the other person disagrees.
  4. Emotion
    They may agree on the objective and the method, and they may even understand that they agree on these things. But they choose to disagree anyway (or at least one of them does). There are a lot of possible emotional reasons: everything from distrust, dislike and hate, to embarrassment, fear, peer pressure, face-saving or just a steadfast commitment to a prior position.

Group Disagreement
These same four reasons apply to individuals when they’re in groups. Each individual in the group has an opinion, but group dynamics influence those individual opinions and make the situation more complicated. A group opinion is more than a simple sum of individual opinions. Some members of the group are more vocal and tend to contribute more to the group opinion. Some members of the group have more clout (due to position, rank, respect, trust or just habit) and so their individual opinions carry more weight in a group discussion. Some members of the group are apathetic or afraid to express their opinions, and so their personal opinions go unheard and unrecognized.

How to Resolve an Individual Disagreement
1. Start with reason #4 — emotion. You need to understand whether or not there’s an emotional response to you or to your issue, and figure out how to cut through the emotion and get to an objective conversation. Sometimes this can be done by putting the emotional concern out on the table, often in a self-deprecating way that acknowledges and values the other person’s position. Here’s an example: “I know that I can sometimes come across as dictatorial and abrupt, but we both want this project to be a success.  I’ll do my best to try and understand your point of view, and I would really appreciate it if you would try to understand my point of view.  And maybe by working together we can do what’s best for the company.”

The approach you take in dealing with the emotion is going to vary from situation to situation. In some cases you won’t be able to deal with the emotional issue, and you’ll have to skip this step — at least temporarily — and move on.

2. Next, work on reasons #1 and #3 simultaneously — objective and communication. Go back to basics and find some basis of agreement, however small. Maybe it’s a part of the objective, or even the context of the objective. The idea is to start with something you both know you can agree on, and then build from there.

This process helps communication, but here’s something else you can do to improve communication even more:  Try to restate the other person’s position in your own words.  Then have the other person restate your position in his/her own words.  Go back and forth on this until you can agree that you’re both accurately representing each other’s opinion.  Many times you’ll discover that you’re closer to agreement than you thought.  And if not, at least you have a better understanding of why you disagree.

3. Build a logical case on top of the things you agree on. You may find that you don’t agree on objectives, and that’s as far as you can go. Or you may find that you disagree on objectives but that your different objectives still support the same solution or method. For example, you may disagree on why the health care system in the United States needs to be revamped, but you can still agree on a course of action that will lead to changes.

4. During all of this, keep reevaluating the emotional side of the disagreement. Watch out for emotional reactions to what you perceive as logical statements, since not everyone sees certain words and phrases the same way. Address emotional issues as you can, or tiptoe around them if you need to.

How to Resolve a Group Disagreement
The best way to resolve a disagreement with a group — or to prevent a potential disagreement — is to talk to each member of the group one-on-one. If you can convince every member of a group to agree with you, then you only have to deal with face-saving when the group reconvenes to discuss the issue. And you can facilitate the face-saving process by suggesting ways that a group member may be able to explain or justify a change in his/her opinion. Help the group members get out of the situation the group has put them in.

If a group is too large for you to talk to each member one-on-one, then talk with certain key members who hold the most influence over the group opinion.  Make sure you single out the influential members who you think might be opposed to your idea — getting them on your side will be key.  When you talk to a group member who agrees with you, ask for help in convincing the others.  And ask for advice — they may have ideas on things you can do to sell your point of view and win over other members of the group.

Dealing with disagreements is a part of being human, and a key part of being a manager or leader. Use the process suggested above, but remember that you’re not always right. Sometimes the best way to resolve a disagreement is to recognize that you ought to change your mind.  In that case you may end up agreeing with what the other person has been saying all along.

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