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The emotionally intelligent way to resolve disagreements faster

Unpacking the counterintuitive psychology behind conflict resolution.

The emotionally intelligent way to resolve disagreements faster
[Photo: [Photo: Francois Boudrias/iStock]

Imagine you run a tech startup. Cash is tight, but you can’t afford to enter the market with a product that doesn’t live up to its promises. And right now, it’s clear that your engineers aren’t focusing enough on the user-experience issues. Your senior engineer just won’t play along, though. You and she can’t seem to agree on what matters. She wants to do an early launch so the engineers can test features and improve them before fine-tuning the UX, arguing that other software companies, including major tech giants like Apple and Google, launch beta versions all the time. She suggests that you’re just burning cash and wasting time, that you don’t understand how tech companies work and need to trust her on this.

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But you don’t. You’re worried about the brand; what if first-time users give you just one chance, hate the UX, and never return? If your launch product isn’t user-friendly, your whole business could be destroyed. Weeks go by and your disagreement with the senior engineer is going nowhere. You’ve tried bringing evidence and examples to prove to her that she’s wrong, and she’s done the same to you. The arguments have started to get heated, she’s getting concerned about your leadership, and you’re getting concerned about her commitment.

What should you do? What you should’ve done much earlier: Find something–anything–to agree on, as long as it’s meaningful.

Agree on something (other than the solution)

It’s natural during conflicts to feel you have to prove that you’re right, but this only escalates things. One party may give in, but it will be at the expense of wasted time, energy, and morale. However, a surprising thing happens when you take the opposite approach. By finding some common ground as soon as you detect the first signs of tension or conflict, you can start working quickly toward a mutually agreeable solution.

There’s always something true in the other party’s thinking. It may be their intention, premises, logic, concerns, or the factors they’re weighing. For example, you might agree with your senior engineer’s concerns and say to her, “I agree. It would make a lot of sense to get real user testing at this stage on our basic features before we put a lot more energy into other things. Let’s find a way to do that without a public launch. I need to also make sure we protect the brand experience.”

Alternatively, you might agree with her premises and say, “You make a great point that the tech giants do a lot of this kind of testing, and it’s hugely beneficial to getting the product features right. We should follow their lead. I think we won’t get the chance to learn about those features unless users have a simple and positive experience. That’s something else great companies do. What will it take for us to get to that point before we put our product out there?”

Or you may even seek a deeper truth and say, “I appreciate how much you want this product and this company to be amazing. I share that optimism and enthusiasm. That’s why I think we have so much potential here. Let’s think about where we’re both trying to get to.”

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When you find a way to agree with something other than the solution to the problem you’re debating, you can shift the frame of the conversation to include a factor you both see as true and relevant. That makes it easier for the other person to lay down their arms and stop fighting. Instead, they start listening.

The psychology of agreeing

This approach creates what psychologists call “shared reality” and “procedural justice.” Shared reality is what happens when others see the world as you do and then find a way to let you know. It’s very unsettling when others don’t share your understanding of reality. When they do, however, it puts people on the same team and opens them up to collaboration. Procedural justice is about getting a fair hearing. It’s when people can ask themselves, “Did I get a chance to actually be heard?” and answer in the affirmative. We’re far more likely to accept an outcome if we feel like we’ve been listened to and understood. Not only does finding something to agree on fulfill both of these psychological needs, but research also suggests that people tend to automatically reciprocate. So when you agree, your opponent is more likely to find something else to agree with you about in turn.

Wait, though: What if agreeing makes you look like a pushover? What if the other person really is to blame for something–will you be letting them get away with it? And if you give a little ground, won’t they just take more? These are all important concerns. But the fact is that they remain liabilities whether or not you find something in their argument to agree with; acknowledging common ground doesn’t totally invalidate your argument. You can agree and remain very strong about what matters to you. You can agree and still address how you came to be in the situation. And you can agree and stand your ground. Having created the basis for shared reality, procedural justice, and reciprocity, you’re less likely to meet resistance for standing up for your own needs in these ways.

So when you find yourself locked in disagreement, the emotionally intelligent thing to do is to agree–not necessarily with the other party’s conclusions or proposed solution, but with some truth in what they believe. It could be their goals, intentions, concerns, emotions, or something bigger-picture that you share. It has the surprising and counterintuitive effect of disarming people, so you can move past disagreement and on to collaboration.

There’s one more, often unexpected result of this approach. Agreeing tends to bring out the best in other people, but it can also bring out the best in you. By pushing yourself to find common ground, you can shift your own thinking in a more collaborative direction, too. A little more flexibility and understanding–on all sides–is surely a good thing.


Josh Davis, PhD, is the author of the international best-seller Two Awesome Hours. He is faculty and senior director of research at the Institute for Personal Leadership, and he teaches “The Art of Public Speaking” at the NLP Center of New York.

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Hitendra Wadhwa, PhD, is professor of practice at Columbia Business School and founder of the Institute for Personal Leadership.

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