The art of agreeing to disagree
Workplace confrontation can erupt easily, and cooling rifts is tricky, but one way to deal with it involves a latent skill you already have – listening
In what might be the least divisive statement of 2020: we are living in divisive times. Suddenly every minor disagreement seems politicised. While you are free to be a soap-box star or keyboard warrior until your heart’s content in your free time, there’s one place that you have to leave divisive opinions behind – at work.
Except that’s a total fantasy. Name me a workplace free from office politics, never mind actual politics. As much as you might hold back, there will be others with less resolve, and the tiniest underlying tension can lead to workplace conflict. So what to do about it?
One strategy to cool the temperature of work conversations is the exact opposite of what you will want to do in that situation, and that’s to listen. Really listen.
Tania Israel, a psychology professor at the University of California, is an advocate of active listening. While our knee-jerk reaction in any conversation is to chime in with tales of our own experiences, or hastily thought-out questions or rebuttals, Israel suggests that instead we should try staying silent.
Try this in your next conversation, be it a congenial casual chat or passive-aggressive office interaction, and you’ll discover just how hard it is. You’ll also see it has benefits. “In my training as a psychologist, I spent a lot of time learning how to actively listen,” says Israel, who advises keeping your body language open, eye contact locked and mouth firmly shut for as long as possible. “I can tell you from years of experience that having a productive dialogue is not possible without active listening.”
The second stage in active listening is reflection – repeating back key information taken from the conversation to show the person you have heard what they have said. Imagine doing this with a combatant in the workplace; it will be an instant diffuser. Just because you can show you have listened, does not mean you agree, but it will make the other person feel you are taking their concerns and opinions seriously and will hopefully lead to healthier discussions.
Once you have their attention, you could try and win them over using some other psychological techniques. Paradoxical thinking, for example. This school of thought is led by psychologist Boaz Hameiri at Tel Avivi University and – in layman’s terms – it suggests that instead of attacking your opponent’s beliefs head on, you should try to use leading questions to show them an extreme version of their views that will sound absurd. Work back from this to the real issue, and they could be more likely to reconsider their views.
While Hameiri is developing this technique to cool tensions between Israel and Palestine, it is just as appliable for less pressing topics, such as boorish colleagues. Let’s imagine you are trying to challenge someone who feels entitled to walk around the office while make loud phone calls, as they feel it makes them more successful. In the extreme paradoxical-thinking version of this, everyone in the office is making loud calls, shouting over each and bumping into each other. The imagined cacophony is deafening and counter productive. Now for the leading question: “Do you think that perhaps your behaviour could be disrupting others?”
Whether or not they take the bait, at least you will have been able to air your grievances in a thoughtful way, without resorting to aggression. Even just learning to agree to disagree is a skill we could all benefit from in these divisive times.