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October 07, 2005

Enlightened Disagreement

Think about a hot topic at work – hot because the moment it comes up, heat rises from the under the collars of folks in the room. Perhaps you’re a product or market manager at GM and face tough choices about the mix of hybrids and SUVs in your product line up. Or, you work for the baseball players union and need to figure out what to do about steroids. Or, you’ve been with a big pharmaceutical company long enough to know that the future looks dim for industry pricing and marketing practices.

Now take this test:

When we disagree about hot topics,

A: Each party to the disagreement can articulate to the other party’s satisfaction, the other party’s point of view.

Neither party to the disagreement can articulate to the other party’s satisfaction, the other party’s point of view.

“A” is ‘enlightened disagreement. The manager at GM supporting a higher percentage of hybrids can articulate to the SUV stalwart the SUV point of view. And vice versa. Neither side necessarily changes positions. But they do understand one another – and can demonstrate it by ‘making the other’s case’ to other’s complete satisfaction.

Odds are, however, this debate at GM, like ‘hot topics’ elsewhere, suffer from “B”: unenlightened disagreement.

And that’s a shame. We all know that confronting tough choices benefits from the ‘two heads” rule – as in “two heads are better than one”. Different perspectives produce richer and better understanding.

And, we also know that disagreement is a natural by-product of contrary perspectives. But, too often we don’t reap the full benefits in our disagreements because, instead of taking the risk to actually articulate the other side’s position, we merely go round in circles – repeating our own positions over and over, each time more loudly than the time before.

Converting unenlightened disagreement into enlightened disagreement takes some effort. But it is not earth-shatteringly difficult or complex. Mostly, we only need is to listen well, ask questions and, when we think we’ve got the opposite point of view down, articulate it with sincerity.

Nothing is lost in this effort. Neither honor nor character nor authority nor leadership suffers when we risk satisfying the other side that we understand them. Indeed, quite the reverse.

Much is gained in converting unenlightened disagreement to enlightened disagreement. Surprisingly often, heated disagreements spring from facts that are missing or questions that have not been asked. Frequently, one or other of the parties has misinterpreted what’s being proposed and only sees this when he or she takes the trouble to repeat the other side’s point of view.

Enlightened disagreement does not mean agreement. However, it does mean that, after choices are made, no one can later claim, “When we decided to go down your path, I didn’t understand what you meant.”

Posted by Doug Smith on October 7, 2005 07:59 AM | Permalink