The Heart of the Argument

[article]
Getting Past Positions to the Sources of Disagreement
  1. will require specialized skills because of concerns about the skill gaps, implicitly ruling out hiring specialized expertise without a second thought because of their assumptions.
  2. People think they are talking about the same thing and disagreeing, but in fact they do not agree on some basic definitions and are talking past one another. This is a trap I have fallen into on more than one occasion. (Read Lost in Translation for more information.)

Suggested Action : Take the time to talk about relevant differences in the history of people advocating different positions. This may help both explain the different positions and identify what was similar and what was unique among them. As you hear people disagreeing, be alert to assumptions that may underlie positions and try to identify and document them. A clever saying someone shared with me was "Everyone agreed, until we wrote it down." If a certain word or phrase seems to be an important point of contention, it can be insightful to ask people what the word means to them and publicly document definitions.

Rule #3: Ask, don't tell.
One of the best techniques I've learned for diffusing tensions when reasonable people are disagreeing is asking questions to understand why people believe what they believe. While this can open a can of worms if you are talking about religion or politics, most project issues should be less charged and not generate the same level of passion.

Suggested Actions

  1. Ask open-ended questions. Open-ended questions cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. Examples include:
  • What were some of the negative consequences you have observed because of that action in your past?
  • What might you have done to reduce the likelihood of that occurring?
  • What might you have done to reduce the impact of that occurring?
  • What might you have done to detect those problems sooner?
  1. Listen to the answers. Sometimes it is tempting to argue with people while they try to explain. Argue later. As Stephen Covey says, "Seek first to understand, then to be understood." Listen to what people say and how they say it, and try to identify the parts of their argument that seem to have the most energy. It's OK to seek clarification, but don't argue while you are in fact-finding mode.

Rule #4: Avoid framing decisions as one side "winning" and the other side "losing."
No one likes to lose an argument. Most of us can think of times when we invested more energy in an argument than the outcome warranted because we were convinced we were right and didn't want to lose-or didn't want to give the opposition the satisfaction of winning. Leaders need to work toward the best decision for the project after careful deliberation and hope to get the team on board with the decision.

Suggested Actions

  1. Take the time to understand the different perspectives on the conflict and respect the different history that advocates of different positions bring. This can take a lot of the winning and losing out of decisions.
  2. Sometimes the best decisions are informed by the reservations of the opposition, which might take the form of addressing their major concerns while going with another solution or acknowledging risks the opposition identifies and agreeing to monitor them as the solution is implemented.
  3. When the final decision is made, ask everyone to explicitly agree to support the decision. This can help people consciously let go of some of the energy of the conflict and put it behind them. 

Diplomacy is a critical and often ignored aspect of leadership. The ideas presented above won't defuse or

About the author

Payson Hall's picture Payson Hall

Payson Hall is a consulting project manager for Catalysis Group, Inc. in Sacramento, California. Payson consults on project management issues and teaches project management. Email Payson at payson@catalysisgroup.com. Follow him on twitter at @paysonhall.

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