How to Disagree without having a Bust-Up

First of all, have a look at this video of an interview between Adam Boulton and Alastair Campbell.


We’ve all had similar conversations, whether at home or at work – but not usually on camera – where a conversation spirals in a matter of seconds. Typically it unfolds along these lines:

  1. We have a difference of opinion.
  2. There is a trigger point where we get riled or offended by the tone or body language of the other person, or the content of what they are saying.
  3. The speed of the conversation increases at exactly the moment when we’d benefit from slowing it down.
  4. We cut short each other’s sentences and abandon attempts to listen.
  5. Because we’re being interrupted and aren’t getting heard, levels of anger and frustration build at lightning speed and the volume increases.
  6. Rather than pressing the brakes, we blow the lid off the conversation. In other words, it reaches a crescendo where an exchange of barbed comments are fired at each other in an attempt to win the disagreement or to cause maximum effect.

It’s quite rare for conversations to get to this point in a work setting. More often, people remove themselves before it gets too vitriolic. Instead they go away, seethe, and gather agreement from other people who will support their view. Sometimes they will come back together to apologise and clear up the situation, or they may adopt a civil front even though there are underlying fault-lines in the relationship.

So how can you prevent this from happening? Here are some practices that can help:

1. Voice your feelings.

This can change the direction of the conversation. If you say, ‘I’m finding this very frustrating’, it communicates what you’re feeling rather than why the other person is wrong. It also signals that the warning lights are flashing, meaning that you are getting into dangerous conversational territory.

2. Press the ‘Stop’ button.

Instead of getting pulled into a verbal scrap, you can say, ‘Let’s stop this conversation now and come back to it later’ or ‘I need to take a break from this for a few minutes’.

3. Slow the pace.

Make a conscious effort to slow the conversation down. Don’t interrupt, even if they have plenty to say. Once you’ve listened (fully), they are more likely to listen to you.

4. Resolve things later.

You may need to come back to them later to resolve any residual misunderstanding or bad feelings. If you’re going to do this, you must listen to each other. Otherwise you’ll get back into The Tangle or The Big Argument.

5. Accept your part.

If you do come back together to resolve the disagreement, be prepared to take responsibility for your part in it, or to accept the other person’s apology. Otherwise it’s probably better not to bother.


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