Most people feel uncomfortable with conflict.
But when that discomfort keeps you from having important healthy discussions with people who disagree, it gets in the way of doing business. As an executive coach who works with founders and executives at startups, I’ve see the negative effects of this squeamishness. At times it can turn toxic. One company I coached a few years ago had a practice of employees seeming to agree to something during the meeting while texting one another on the side to register their displeasure with the decisions being made and the people who made them. This does not lead to either operational efficiency or psychological safety.
It turns out that conflict, aired openly and constructively, is critical to building a strong team and business. Healthy debate is the only way your people can hash out ideas, get all perspectives, and work their way to a better answer. Research shows that conflict — handled well — is essential to creativity.
Here are three tools to help you disagree productively.
Accept that conflict is natural
Smart people with different ways of thinking, different experiences, and different backgrounds disagree. Research supports the value of diversity within teams. Doesn’t that value come from bringing different points of view into the room?
In addition, every company experiences natural tensions across functions. Sales wants to agree to all features that customers want, which drives engineering crazy. Finance wants to cut advertising spend, but marketing considers that an investment.
When someone disagrees with you, or says something you don’t agree with, pause for a moment before you make a counterargument. Check in with how you’re feeling. Are you defensive or even angry? If so, what are you taking personally that you may not have to?
Next, relax your body and try to open your mind. Maybe you can learn from what they’re saying. At the very least, listening to what they say offers insight into how you’ll reach resolution, and that’s valuable information.
Then, ask a few questions so that you are sure you understand their point of view. You don’t have to agree to investigate. In addition to helping you understand better where they’re coming from, your curious probing gives them the experience of being listened to. This combination helps both of you ratchet down any negative emotions and allows instead the exchange of ideas. That’s how all of us learn.
Use language to emphasize your desire to engage
You have a lot of power to signal your intent through your language and your tone. Acknowledge the other person’s point of view by mirroring it back. You can say, “So it sounds like what you you’re saying is” and then rephrase what you heard them say. This will give them a feeling of being heard — always critical in conversations that can get heated — and also let them correct or fine-tune what you said. In doing so, you’ll both learn more about the point of view they’re expressing.
You can also soften harsh assertions by using hedge words like “sometimes” and “maybe.” And when you use more words, it has the effect of cushioning what you’re saying. So “I don’t agree” can turn into “I hear what you’re saying, but I’m not sure if I fully agree with your point.” As a coach, I often hear people say, “I don’t have time for that” but I would challenge you to literally count the amount of extra time it takes. I bet it’s barely a second. It might take you some energy to use the extra words to soften your point, but that’s nothing compared with the energy it takes to de-escalate a tense standoff or — even worse — work around someone in your workplace you’re not speaking to anymore because you’ve gotten into an all-out war.
As the leader, you are under surveillance. What you do has an outsize impact on what people think is the right behavior. If you’re one of the ones doing side slacks, everyone will know it’s OK to act that way. But if instead you publicly praise your executives for disagreeing in a healthy way, they’ll learn that’s the way you expect them to behave. If you comfortably ask for people to challenge your point of view and praise them when they do, they’ll start to do that for their own teams. And then disagreement can become a tool for productivity and a spur to creativity–and not something you need to avoid.