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Disagreements Don’t Have to Be Divisive



by Francesca Gino

A well-functioning organization, like a well-functioning society, requires employees and leaders alike to have productive conversations, even in the face of different views and opinions — in fact, especially in the face of such differences.

On social media and in real life, we regularly find ourselves engaging with people whose core beliefs and values seem to clash with our own. Disagreements about whether masks slow the spread of the coronavirus, whether people should be allowed to work at home during the pandemic, or who should have won the U.S. presidential election too often degenerate into heated arguments.

The reason many of us naturally try to dodge potentially contentious discussions is people often prefer to engage in conversations with those who will confirm their beliefs rather than disagree with them. This happens because we inaccurately predict how we’ll feel in such conversations. For instance, political partisans overestimate how unpleasant it will be to engage in talks with people who have opposing views.

When we appear receptive to listening to and respecting others’ opposing positions, they find our arguments to be more persuasive, our research shows. In addition, receptive language is contagious: It makes those with whom we disagree more receptive in return. People also like others more and are more interested in partnering with them when they seem receptive.

We need to learn how agree to disagree and still stand in our own believes while acknowledging another.

1. Acknowledge the other person’s perspective. Acknowledging the views of someone you disagree with by saying “I understand that …” or “I believe what you’re saying is…” shows that you are engaged in the conversation.

2. Hedge your claims. In subtle and not-so-subtle ways, our society conveys the message that we should be strong and confident — that we should grab what we want and express our views in a direct, forceful way. By contrast, being tentative, faltering, or uncertain earns us the reputation of being weak and indecisive. Assertiveness is prized, while humility is shameful. But we have this wrong.

3. Phrase your arguments in positive terms. It is easy, during conflict, to use negative terms — for instance, to point to arguments the other person made that we should not give weight to. Instead, use positive language.

4. Point to areas of agreement, even if small or obvious. When we’re in conflict, it’s easy to focus on all the ways we disagree with each other. It’s also easy to become defensive and stop listening to the other side altogether.

By using these four strategies in our communication, we’ll be able to engage in even the most heated conversations more productively. The lesson is that even when discussing the most difficult topics, it is possible for people with polar-opposite points of view to have a constructive conversation. By using the techniques I’ve described, we can bridge our divides.

Francesca Gino is a behavioral scientist and the Tandon Family Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. She is the author of the books Rebel Talent: Why It Pays to Break the Rules at Work and in Life and Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed, and How We Can Stick to the Plan. Twitter: @francescagino.

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