The Heart of the Argument

Getting Past Positions to the Sources of Disagreement

Arguments and conflicts are a normal part of working life, and good leaders must learn to handle professional disagreements diplomatically. In this week's column, Payson Hall explains some productive approaches to negotiating among differing points of view.

Let me begin with an unambiguous assertion: I'm not a therapist. I am a project manager and consultant who has served in a number of leadership and advisory capacities in the past thirty years. I cannot help you deal with crazy people, evil people, or family relationships-that's beyond my pay grade and training. That said, I do have a lot of project experience dealing with reasonable people who had honest differences of opinion that escalated into serious conflict.

Differences of opinion are healthy and essential, but, beyond a point, conflict can get out of hand and be damaging to project morale and relationships among team members. This week, I hope to share a few insights and techniques I've picked up in my career that can improve your ability to work through disagreements or at least better uncover underlying issues.

Rule 1: Assume people are trying to do the best they can with the information they have available.
In my career I have run into only a handful of truly evil and selfish people who acted in their self-interest knowing that their actions were not in the best interests of their project, organization, or co-workers. In my experience, these people are extremely rare. If you think you are arguing with one, be careful. You are probably not dealing with an evil person. When someone appears to be acting maliciously or selfishly, there are several alternatives that may explain the behavior: 

  1. The person taking a seemingly destructive or oppositional position is unaware of some of the negative consequences of the course of action he is taking or advocating.
  2. The people assigning negative consequences to a course of action are unaware of some of the positive aspects of the "negative" solution being proposed. 

Suggested Action : Give the people advocating each alternative a chance to fully explain what they see as the advantages of their option. Don't let the opposition interrupt. Write down the proposed advantages. When the advocates are finished, give the opposition and chance to ask clarifying questions. Repeat for each option. Insist that people treat each other with courtesy and respect.

Rule 2: When people disagree, it is often because they have different perspectives .
Kind of a "duh," but this can also be profound insight if you give yourself permission to seek the basis of the different perspectives without prejudice. In my experience, the differences of perspective often come down to three key points: 

  1. Advocates of one position have different history than advocates of another. If your personal history is that converting to a relational database was a painful and error-prone experience, you will tend to think it is a bad idea. If my experience is that it was relatively easy and beneficial, I may advocate it. Someone else may have no personal experience but has heard good or bad stories from the media or other colleagues.
  2. People may be working with different assumptions. People rarely have complete information about anything. In absence of complete information, people fill in the gaps by making assumptions. This isn't bad as it is a natural process, but it can be a source of conflict when the assumptions are unspoken or unconscious and different from the assumptions of others. The challenge is that people are often unaware of the assumptions that they have made and treat them as if they are certain. If an organization has historically been extremely resistant to hiring consultants to address skill gaps, veterans of the organization may assume the same will be true in the future. They could possibly argue against a course of action that they know

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