I can recall many examples when I’ve had a conversation, meeting or discussion with someone (who I generally agree with) turn into a fully fledged debate. We often describe these conversations as ‘going sideways’ as that’s how it feels to both parties. It’s a feeling that you’re marching alongside each other and then suddenly, someone takes a hard right turn. Both parties usually walk away from those conversations with the sense ”I thought we were pretty aligned — turns out we’re not”. Sometimes this is true - there’s a fundamental disagreement that just surfaced. But in the vast majority of these cases, I believe the feeling of misalignment is more one of perspective than a real difference of opinion.
I’ve witnessed this a during the workplace but perhaps given the current political and social climate, it’s happening a lot more outside as well. Here’s an observation I’ve made about these types of situations, as well as how I now try to handle them. The observation is this:
We spend 90% of our time, talking about the 10% of things we disagree on
Expressed visually — it looks like this.
Stop for a minute. Think back over the past week and see if you can recall an example of this. If you can, the counter-productiveness will feel obvious. But to be specific about the downsides of this phenomenon, here’s why it’s not awesome:
- All the creativity and energy goes into arguing and articulating the minor differences in interpretation or point of view, rather than building on shared beliefs and values
- If there are people who are dependent on you to resolve a conflict, their progress is blocked as there’s no clarity on where there is agreement
- You feel more misaligned / distant / out of sync with someone than you need to be. This can reduce the likelihood you’ll want to engage with that person in the future
These discussions often painful or “low bandwidth” … If you’re a leader or manager at work, the issue can sometimes stem from prioritizing ‘being heard’ over ‘creating clarity’. But if we flip that, our role becomes obvious — to provide maximum clarity on wherever there is agreement (and where there is not). If we rethought our roles, we’d find the % of agreement is higher than we thought.
This doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything. Creating space for disagreement is actually really important — it helps flesh out important differences that can be amplified if wallpapered over or dismissed. This is captured well in Amazon’s “disagree and commit” leadership principle. But for me, sequencing is super important… Create clarity (and build on) wherever there is ‘about 90% agreement’ first— then come back around and address the disagreements after. Articulating this through a series of steps, this is how I try [not always successfully] to manage a discussion:
- Actively look for common ground by asking “what do we agree on”, “what shared points of view do we have”, “where are we aligned”? As these are shared, write them down. The goal isn’t to find agreement on everything, but to look for areas where there is 90% agreement and spend time on those. As disagreement emerges, make sure these areas are articulated / written down but resist the urge to debate or resolve them at this point.
- As the list of agreed upon items grows, spend time articulating them to make sure it’s actually the case. Have individuals try to express the other person’s point of view to make sure it’s roughly aligned. Perfection isn’t required — remember, we’re looking for 90% agreement. If there’s someone / something dependent on a decision then ask “is there enough of a shared view here for this [team / person / decision] to move forwards?”. If so, make sure that happens.
- Finally, loop back around to where there is actual disagreement and work on that.
There’s lots we could say now about how to resolve real differences (#3), how to break deadlocks and making sure a decision isn’t ‘the average of all opinions’ but that’s out of scope for this article. For now, my main hope is to help those situations where common ground is closer than you may believe or perceive.
So, the next time we feel compelled to explain to someone how wrong they are or someone feels the need to do the same to us, before launching into an incredulous debate we can first ask ourselves “what do we actually agree on?”. Once in a while the answer will be “nothing at all” — but if we can lean into that question with curiosity, we may find the answer is “actually, quite a lot”.