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Agreeing to disagree: the art of healthy conflict

Disagreements are a part of life, but they don’t need to be confrontational. Learning how to engage in healthy conflict allows you to look at the pros and cons of a situation with an open mind, and results in better solutions.

I had a conversation yesterday with someone who has a challenging relationship with his boss, so I used the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument – five modes based on the degree to which someone acts when they disagree with someone; they will either avoid the issue, accommodate the opposing view, collaborate, compromise or compete head-on – to look at their behaviour types, and every area of disagreement was where the personality types differed.

Teams need to recognise their types and use them to their advantage, and also accept that their fellow team members or people they’re in relationships with will more often than not have a different behaviour type and take that into account in the event of a disagreement.

Keep a positive attitude and recognise that there are different styles and different approaches within a team or a relationship. Conflict will come about when different personalities and cultures work together that have their own differing approaches, and a lot will come from different communication styles.

It’s essential to recognise that and focus on the message the person is giving you, rather than how they are saying it or even the words they’re using. What could be seen as brash and abrasive by one person could simply be intended as efficient and to-the-point by another. Look past the tone for the message, and then respond to that.

Remember that we all have a different conflict mode, as I mentioned earlier. Where one person will collaborate, another may confront. If you find yourself constantly clashing with the same person, it may simply be that you are opposing types. If this is the case, it’s important to recognise and address it. If you leave issues bubbling under the surface without resolving them, they will blow up sooner or later – and the longer you leave it, the longer it will take to deal with and the bigger the fall-out will be.

Disagreements don’t just go away – if they’re not dealt with positively, they will increase and become toxic at the expense of the organisation or the relationship.

If no-one gives way, you need a mediator. I recently worked with two people with a very difficult relationship who simply could not agree, so I spoke to them individually to get to the heart of the issues, and then got them together so they could air them. Ultimately, I helped them to see that one person’s view was the right one – sometimes, you have to have that external voice to help people focus on what’s right for the organisation, the team or the relationship.

In organisations, the company culture needs a framework for dealing with disagreements, and the leadership team needs to decide what that is, whether it’s brainstorming, listing views and opinions and getting together to explore differences – it has to be built into the organisation’s DNA. It’s really important that the leadership encourages a culture where people can speak up without fear of being reprimanded or blamed.