Need to learn how to disagree more respectfully? Or better learn how not to disagree at all!
In general, I like asking questions, not because I necessarily have the answers, but because questions often stimulate curiosity better than statements, and can reveal truths more effectively than limited personal perspectives.
So, let me ask you a question. When was the last time that you met a qualified communicator? Yes, I meant that – a ‘qualified communicator’. You’ve probably met a qualified accountant, a qualified project manager, a qualified Scrum master and even a qualified coach. But who has ever met a qualified communicator? What does that even mean?
Curiously, few people have formal qualifications in how to manage business conversation, how to control a dialogue, on how to exchange perspectives and reach decisions – and yet we do this every day, and we need to do so to a high quality. Interestingly, some professionals are trained – namely pilots, doctors and nurses, in a controlled form of communication called Closed Loop, designed to ensure understanding and avoid misunderstanding. Yet in business it seems that we trust in individuals’ capability and discipline to perform a competence – communication – which is as challenging as any of the technical skills people train to master.
I want to share with you a conversation I had with a quality manager recently in an international engineering firm. I’m going to call him Daniel.
Daniel and I were recently in the middle of one of our many video calls since COVID-19, the virus which put an end to our ability to meet in person. In any case, I was chatting to him about one of his international colleagues. This person wasn’t easy – he was causing Daniel a few headaches during conversations about how to deal with an important global customer. Much of what this guy said Daniel, in fact, disagreed with. Daniel wanted to express this disagreement. But Daniel knew he could be too direct sometimes, so he wanted ideas from me on he could disagree respectfully.
Now, of course, Daniel is smiling when he asks me. He’s an optimist. He thinks that I have the secret formula – how to tell people they’re wrong in a way which they like to hear – in a way which doesn’t damage the relationship.
My response to Daniel was very short, and somewhat unexpected, “Why do you need to disagree at all?”, I asked.
At this point, his smile turned to a bit of a frown – not exactly an angry frown, more the sort of frown you make when you’re made to think long and hard about something you didn’t expect to hear. My response had obviously surprised him.
Eventually, he replied, “Because I need him to understand he’s wrong.”
The problem with telling the truth
Now Daniel is unusual in some ways, but quite typical in many others, especially when it comes to communication at work. Very often, people approach conversations or meetings with Daniel’s aim, to tell others what we think, to inform others of our views, our truths; and we can be very quick to correct or challenge those who try to express a different worldview.
Note that Daniel’s intentions are actually positive – he wants to pass on useful information to the other person. Of course, it’s useful to know that you’re wrong, isn’t it? However, when people begins to talk and insist like Daniel, even respectfully, fundamentally, they cease to participate in dialogue and begin to initiate the form of collective monologue we see all too often at work; people talking at each other, defending their ideas, challenging others, correct the fake news from others – in the end, it’s talking not with other people but simply to themselves.
This collective monologue habit is very common in international team meeting which are often populated by people who don’t know each other very well, often with insufficient time to talk about complex problems, commonly expressing thoughts in English as a foreign language. In these contexts, careful speaking and listening is a real effort., it’s simpler to focus effort on telling and pushing home ideas which concern ‘me in my region’.
With all this in mind, remember, I’m still talking to Daniel. I decide to get provocative.
“Maybe, Daniel, the smart thing as a communicator is not to say what you think – to forget content and to focus on process – to try to enable conversation so that both people can understand what the other person is saying, and this as the basis for establishing how to agree, and what to do next?”
Daniel looks at me. The frown reappears. This time the skin around his eyebrows creases; it’s like he’s trying to solve a very complex equation while talking to me. My tactic is obviously working.
So, I go on. “And to do this, Daniel, you’ve got to manage conversation in a smart way, to really create an effective dialogue process where speaker and listener commit together to build mutual understanding, and to agree a way forward. In reality, no-one owns the truth. It’s usually somewhere in the middle.”
Now, at this point, Daniel leans back, thinks and says “Hmm, that’s interesting. What do you mean? What is this effective dialogue process?”
And there we are – finally, we’ve begun to communicate; dialogue has started; characterized not by asserting and defending, but by asking and deepening understanding.