Great leadership isn’t a matter of avoiding disagreements, but rather skillfully addressing them when they arise. Minor conflicts won’t hurt a relationship, or organization, if handled adroitly – in fact, the process of overcoming challenges makes us wiser, stronger, and more empathetic. Rather, it’s the hard-hitting, boundary-defining, and crossroads discussions that you must be on the watch for, as each can create fissures in your relationships. So as to approach discussions constructively, it is first key to know the difference between them. According to seminal book Crucial Conversations, these important talks involve three powerful ingredients: Opposing opinions, strong emotions, and high stakes. Most importantly, we’d add that exercising empathy, kindness, and an open-minded point of view is key to successfully navigating them as well.
In tough discussions, keeping an open mind and listening actively are among the most powerful tools you’ve got. Letting others finish their thoughts before speaking, paying attention to what’s being communicated rather than pre-planning a response, and creating a space for areas where you may actually be in agreement are vital to building, not burning, bridges. Likewise, we must not only be aware of the messages we’re sending with our words, but our physical actions as well. Case in point: Dr. Albert Mehrabian famously discovered that 55 percent of communication comes down to body language, which means that when we approach discussions with folded arms, flailing hands, and other signs of defensiveness or aggression, we’re signaling (accurately or otherwise) that we aren’t open to other perspectives and aren’t listening. Instead, empathetic thinkers and active listeners make consistent eye contact, lean their heads towards whoever is speaking, and keep their arms away from their chests. Doing so sends a message to others that we’re keeping our hearts and minds open to what they have to say.
Active listening also entails you affirming that you hear the other person. Acknowledgement can take the form of a nod, a slight “mmm-hmm”, or another indication of active engagement. (Tread carefully when utilizing this skill, however, as a passionate arguer may mistake your encouragement for agreement.) To successfully utilize this talent, try a simple exercise – envision yourself as being a supportive listener eager to understand others’ unique viewpoints, not a person wanting to be convinced of a different opinion. Most of our defensiveness comes from us being afraid that others involved in disagreements may actually win the argument. Allowing yourself to truly listen to what others have to say – which may often be seemingly critical or harsh – makes you in turn more receptive and less defensive and can help keep tense conversations calm and orderly.
Any time you’re faced with a hard conversation, you’ll also want to lay boundaries down for dialogue to insure a respectful discussion. In a recent chat with Harvard Business Review, Crucial Conversations co-author Joseph Greeny says one of the best things you can do is actually ask permission to disagree. Put simply, you can literally say to another party: “I know we have two very different perspectives on this. Can I explain my view?” Doing so underlines a key component of disagreement: The worst results often come from not feeling like the other party respects your intelligence, perspective, or strategy. By asking for permission, you are offering other parties an olive branch, letting them know you respect their perspective an opinion, while also creating space for you to get all the objective facts out on the table (and facts should be presented objectively to ensure a positive discussion) while also carving out your own uninterrupted time to talk.
And contrary to common belief, being a leader in a company or organization does not make it easier to create a culture of healthy disagreement either. Rather, it can make your role more challenging. Talent Economy describes it as the CEO Disease: The higher you sit on the corporate ladder, the harder it is to be self-aware and actually take ownership of your own weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Likewise, it’s not always simple to create or maintain an organizational culture where people are comfortable speaking “truth to power.” Ask yourself: Can employees truly feel comfortable talking to you honestly without fear of repercussion? If not, as noted in bestselling book Make Change Work for You, you’re losing valuable input from your peers – often (especially in the case of frontline employees who deal with customers every day) the most informed audiences in the enterprise. To encourage more productive conversations be open to feedback and differing perspectives without punishing those who disagree with you. Over time, you’ll be able to create a workplace of productive disagreement.
The best way to cultivate healthy dialog if you’re a manager or executive leader? Do away with the organizational hierarchy that stands between having regular open and honest conversations, and do your best to create opportunities for others to make their voice heard in your business. Here’s an often forgotten truth: Anyone we hire during our leadership tenure is someone we believe can contribute to the organization: What sense does it make for us to recruit and cultivate smart people, then expect them to agree with our every thought, rather than bring unique (and uniquely-informed) thoughts and perspectives to the table? Instead, trust the instincts that told you to hire them in the first place and listen more deeply. Just as with mentors, our colleagues often have much to share, and can help us avoid making costly business mistakes.
Want to have more productive conversations – even ones in which confrontation is inevitably involved? The key is to shift the focus away from “winning” to creating win-win scenarios and shift the tone of the discussion from personal standpoints to more businesslike ones. World-renowned management and leadership expert Clayton Christensen once famously said, “My theory has an opinion. I don’t have an opinion.” In short, when you make disagreements less personal, and more about hypotheses to prove, they become far simpler to work through. Ask yourself: Isn’t your main goal to do what’s best for the organization? What if the other person has an insight or perspective I don’t have that would make my company better: Wouldn’t I want to have it as well?
In short, when having hard conversations at work, it’s not about who’s “right” (read: rather, offering the best solution for now), but what’s right for the business. And providing room for others be heard and respected – as well as room to share what they feel is right for the betterment of all – can help easy transform any disagreement to a more productive dialogue that leads to greater understanding, added empathy, and, ultimately, more positive action.