Few of us enjoy confrontation and arguments, which is why many people actively avoid them. Unfortunately, ignoring an issue or withdrawing all together can hurt your career. A productive disagreement not only has the power to improve your output at work; it’s an exercise you should welcome when given the chance, says Buster Benson, author of Why Are We Yelling? The Art of Productive Disagreement.
“Becoming cognizant of our cognitive biases can better our ability to productively argue,” he says. “Biases, in general, are adapted to disagreements; it’s where they flair up and become prominent. In a mental perspective, we are all motivated to win an argument. When you understand and address your biases, you can enhance teamwork, leadership skills, and creative problem-solving in the office.”
Benson is the former product manager for Twitter and Slack, where he says he fostered an approach to conversations that made disagreements less frustrating. The key is treating people like they’re all coming to the table with different agendas but a similar goal, to move something forward.
Before any disagreement—one that’s expected or one that is unplanned—prepare, so that you don’t panic and revert to “battle mode.” You shouldn’t go into the disagreement expecting to change the other person’s mind. Instead, focus on what you can get out of it.
Here are four positive results that can make you more productive in the long-term:
1. A better understanding of your values
In any argument, turn inward, Benson suggests. “How aware are you about your beliefs and values behind the disagreement?” he asks. “Why is it important to have the conversation? If you can stay mindful and not go to battle mode, the argument can be more productive.”
If the topic is triggering for you, it will be harder to stay mindful than in a disagreement with a topic that is not as emotionally precarious. Reflect on your anxieties about the issue and what you are threatened by.
2. New perspectives
One of the most valuable things to take away from an argument is an opportunity to gain new insights around a topic. A disagreement gives you a chance to see the world through somebody else’s eyes. Be ready to ask questions, but step back with an attitude of learning.
“People have different perspectives, and their views may feel out of reach,” says Benson. “If you can’t understand how they believe what they do, ask, but be careful how you frame the question. It’s easy to slip into dehumanizing them or thinking they’re dumb.”
For example, you can ask, “How did you come to your position?” “How can I hear what you’re trying to say?” or “What do people like me mistake about you?”
“Asking these types of questions is the crucial step, but frame it with curiosity,” says Benson. “This buys time to make sure you don’t say the wrong thing. When you’re feeling threatened, your brain is not ready to be curious.”
3. An enjoyable experience
It sounds counterintuitive, but you can go into a disagreement and look at it as a positive exercise. This may take mental effort, but it can change the experience.
“If you go to the gym, dreading it the whole time, you’ll probably have a terrible time and maybe not go back a lot,” says Benson. “But if you see it like a sport where you’re having fun, it will feel differently. See disagreements the same way. You may not know how you will perform, but you can do your best to enjoy it.”
Finally, go into an argument looking for alignment and security. You may have different approaches, but you probably have the same goal. It’s important to communicate that fact and then forge a trail with the end in mind.
Think of arguments as a binary change, says Benson. “When you have a productive disagreement, you get an expansion in perspectives, more than quick change,” he says. “You come away with the thought that these two positions are viable, but they may differ in agendas, fears, risk tolerances, or preferences. If you can find a reason why things are not as black and white as you thought, you might get to a better outcome.”