“We’ll have to agree to disagree” is a phrase that sometimes comes up in interpersonal communication, referencing opposing opinions and beliefs about sport teams and favourite TV shows alike, which is all right in our social life. But what can you do with this statement when it pops up in important conversations at work? That is much more difficult as it points to a very big problem – the person who choses to wield that statement is stepping back from the conversation and not participating in building a path forward together.
I know, as I have used this phrase myself when I did not feel in a position to navigate the issue right in that moment. Using this phrase to buy yourself more time, ensuring you are ready to participate in a robust discussion about differing points of view is healthy as long as you commit to going back to resolving the concern before it becomes a point of conflict. Leaving things in a perpetually oppositional state doesn’t work well for anyone; it undermines professional working relationships (sometimes at a critical point), creating issues around trust and influence. It isolates both parties, creating an impasse with no obvious way forward. Anyone in leadership who exits a discussion with “we’ll have to agree to disagree” is not leading or influencing others; in order to lead you need to stay in the muck of emotions, values and beliefs that have put you at odds with your professional colleague. Turn away from that, and what are you doing? Creating isolation.
Staying on the moral high ground is often the lofty goal of “agreeing to disagree”, and it offers the justification (often seen as sanctuary) to halt participation in a difficult conversation. However, it doesn’t build understanding, trust, collaboration or a way forward (and there is nothing moral about dropping out of an important conversation and not going back to it). When you choose to put yourself outside of the problem (which is what agreeing to disagree does), things still carry on without you, only now you are no longer in a position to influence or navigate what comes next. As leaders we do not have the luxury of “agreeing to disagree”, it is our job to curiously and compassionately see things from as many perspectives as possible, to fully understand the context, operating realities and nuance of what is in play. If I trust my colleague then why wouldn’t I want to know why their position on an issue is so firm? What do they know that I do not? What do they see that I don’t? What am I missing? This takes genuine curiosity.
And trust. The conditions that lead to agreeing to disagree often involve a lack of trust (either in ourselves or in the other person). If someone is handing you that statement as a way out of a conversation (or argument) then take a step back and consider where the trust issue may lie. Why is isolation preferable to continuing the dialog? If you are using that phrase, stop and think about what specifically you are having difficulty trusting; is it yourself or the other person? Trust is the reason why as leaders we cannot resort to leaving disagreements on important items unanswered, and while it is not particularly comfortable, clearing the air to reach a position of full understanding is necessary to continue the working relationship in a healthy way – and it can be done without anyone having to compromise their principles. The way forward is deeper mutual understanding and acknowledgement based on that mutual understanding. So how do we build that with someone who clearly doesn’t want to continue the conversation (and it is on an issue that is key to working together or moving things forward constructively)?
Allowing some time and breathing space is something to consider, but exit the conversation with transparency, letting the other party know that while you respect they are not in a place where they want to discuss this further, you would like to come back to this issue in the next few days and continue the dialog. If the conversation (now argument) has become heated when this phrase is thrown out, breathing room is exactly what is being called for, and you may have to answer for more then just a disagreement if you exchanged harsh words. Commit to what is needed to begin repairing the relationship, repairing trust. Isolation is never the answer.
In their book Crucial Conversations: Tools For Talking When Stakes Are High, Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler have identified a path forward, and it begins with you (no matter if you are the person asking to agree to disagree or the one being handed that statement). By answering these four questions in an open and honest way (from page 43 in the second edition of their book) you can find a starting place to re-build trust:
If you are answering these questions with the intent to build mutual understanding, then the phrase “agreeing to disagree” is not likely to re-emerge when you follow-up with your colleague. Even with the prompts above this is not easy work (note that the book is worth reading in its entirety for even more depth and options on how to navigate crucial conversations). Navigating difficult conversations takes commitment, curiosity, compassion and self-awareness. As leaders, doing this consistently is what we are truly being asked to do on a daily basis for the health and welfare of our people and organizations.
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