How to Resolve Disagreements Skillfully

Have you ever had a day that’s been going really well and then suddenly it takes a left turn into an argument that leaves you stunned, frustrated and upset? It can happen to the best of us. Here are some practical steps you can take that will get the relationship back on track, address the issue on the table and leave you feeling proud about how you conducted yourself.

1. Regain emotional balance

What tends to happen during a disagreement is that emotion takes over and logic and reason take a back seat.  Stress is produced and blood flows from our rational brain to our reptilian brain, triggering the fight or flight response.

Take a break.  Tell the other person you would like to gather your thoughts and take a short break.

If you can’t do that then take two or three deep breaths.  This will give you a few moments to gather yourself mentally. It will also bring more     oxygen into your body, will help alleviate the stress response and get you back in touch with the “real” you.

When you feel your emotions are under control consider these questions: What was happening to you and other person prior to the disagreement?  What events or facts might be affecting them?

2. Recognize and take full ownership of your contribution to the situation

It is essential that you recognize what you did that contributed to the problem. There are always factors from both sides, no matter how small they may be, that in some way have contributed to the problem.

Taking responsibility for what you contributed in a conversation that became contentious is critical if you want to improve it.  Failure to understand the role that you played will undermine your ability to get the situation back on track.

3. Mentally prepare to resolve the problem

There is more at stake than just resolving the mechanical details of the disagreement.  There are three dimensions that need to be considered:  The health of the relationship, the way you conduct yourself, and the goal, or what you were trying to accomplish when the disagreement occurred.

The goals for the conversation are:

To improve the health of the relationship.

To behave in a way that leaves you feeling proud.  The key is to be very honest and very respectful.

To mutually solve the problem. Approach it with a spirit of working together, listen keenly and express your viewpoint, keeping in mind the       principles of honesty and respect.

Consider these questions before you have the conversation:

What is really important to you?

What are you concerns?

What do you really care about?

What would you like to have happen?

These help move the discussion from arguing about opposing positions on a topic to the deeper, more causal drivers beneath the surface.

4. State the constructive purpose of the conversation

Behind every action or statement we make there is a purpose or intention.  For example, a conversation that begins with a statement like, “You didn’t call me when you said you would”, is very different from one that begins with “I would like to talk about how we can keep our commitments to each other.”  The first is blameful, the second reflects shared responsibility.

The second statement is more much likely to get the discussion off on the right foot. The first is likely to create a defensive response because it is accusatory and one sided.

Having a clear, respectful purpose for a resolution conversation is essential. It not only helps get the meeting started on the right foot, it also serves as your “North Star” and can help keep the discussion on track if it starts to veer off.

5. Inquire with sincerity and express your point of view honestly and respectfully

Research indicates that in most conversations, people talk more than they listen.

So, if you tend to talk a lot, this is your chance to focus on asking questions and listening.  The key to asking questions is to be really curious. How do you become curious?  Realize that the other person has an experience that is likely quite different from yours.  The only way for you to understand their experience is for them to explain it to you.  And if you don’t ask, they may not tell you!

Ask one question at a time, then be quiet and don’t interrupt. Questions beginning “what” or “how” generally create a more useful response than questions beginning with “why.”

Here are some very specific steps that will help draw out someone’s thinking, intentions, assumptions and conclusions, if they are not doing so on their own.

  • Invite the other person to explain how they see the facts in concrete terms.
  • Ask what inferences they make, given what they know, and what they are led to believe.
  • Ask how the situation impacts them: What does it makes them think? How does it make them feel?
  • Ask what they would like to see happen or what do they propose?
  • Let them know if you agree or not.

Equally important is expressing yourself fully, honestly and respectfully.  The overall objective is to share your intentions and your thinking. Remember, others can only see your behavior or hear what you say.  They cannot see your intentions or why you think the way that you do.  It is your responsibility to help them understand that.  If they don’t understand your thinking they can only make assumptions, which may or may not be correct.

These are the steps for expressing yourself effectively:

  • State the facts as you see them.
  • Explain your reasoning.
  • State your opinion as your opinion, not a fact.
  • Explain the impact of the situation on you and your concerns.
  • Explain what you would like to see happen, make a proposal.
  • Check for understanding and agreement.

6. Mutually resolve any problems or issues

When both people are part of generating the solution there is more energy created to making it actually work.  Collaborative involvement generates commitment and the belief that something can and will be different in the future.

Mutual resolution doesn’t mean one person caving in to the demands of the other.  It means each person clearly acknowledging and understanding what is important to the other and then creating solutions that satisfy the mutual interests.

Opportunity to Learn

No matter how skilled any of us are, disagreements with others can occur. You can look at them as huge mistakes and personal failures or you can see them as opportunities to learn and grow. If you approach them using the principles I have outlined your chances of turning what seems to be a disaster into a positive experience will greatly improve.

© Copyright 2010 by Don Johnson

About Don Johnson

Don Johnson, the Founder and President of the Integria Group, LLC, has over 25 years of experience in business management, leadership, sales and consulting in the performance improvement industry. He founded the Integria Group after being a Principal Consultant with Axialent. He has worked extensively with executives at Google, YouTube, Yahoo! AXA USA, Crowe Horwath, The Jamaican Ministry of Defense, The United States Federal Court System and Allinial Global helping them develop their leadership skills and their business effectiveness. Don was formerly the US Director of Sales for Insights for 5 years helping lead the business to record growth and also worked at Achieve Global, a leading international training and consulting firm, holding many positions, including Regional Director and later Regional Vice President. For five years, he managed a 30-person, $15 million business unit, leading his organization through the post-merger integration of three consulting companies. After completing his undergraduate degree from Ohio Wesleyan University in English Literature, Don started his career at Élan Vital, an international non-profit organization that promotes the work of Prem Rawat. A member of the Élan Vital management team from a young age, Don was appointed President of the corporation in 1980 and held the position for four years. He is a competitive tennis player, plays guitar and writes and records music. He lives in Tayport, Scotland, a small village on the North Sea.
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