Does Difference Have to Mean Conflict?

By Mindy Millward

Tuesday, February 28th 2017

As a consultant to CEOs and other business leaders responsible for significant results, I find myself continually providing advice and counsel on how to make good decisions. I work with them on how they engage others while still remaining true to their mandate as the ones who ultimately “own” the decision. I help them process what can appear as conflict, disagreement, or even defiance, so they can come through to the other side with a better solution in hand. I have tools, and templates, and wise tidbits galore to help leaders reach agreement with those in their organizations.

But somehow all of that sage advice flies out of my head when I struggle to reach (what I believe to be) agreement with two teenage sons.

All of a sudden what are logical conclusions and seemingly simple conversations, turn into something entirely different as I feel challenged, questioned, and my authority disregarded. These moments certainly increase the empathy I have for my clients.

Most can agree that good decision-making involves the views or input of many. Furthermore, the most effective decisions often involve true difference (of perspective, knowledge, experience) appearing with candor in dialogue so that a common ground can be found that transcends those differences.

But the truth is, difference often feels personal, gets protracted, and gets in the way of productive decision-making. We blame the external factors around us – if not directly the person who has presented a different point of view, than their background, lack of facts, seat they sit in, or something else that emphasizes the difference between us, and therefore reassures us about the validity of our own thoughts.

So what do we do if we know good decisions require different viewpoints, but are inherently defensive of such difference? In order for our leaders (and myself) to be in the right space to appreciate and engage with difference, we work with them on a few core ideas:

  1. It’s just data. Detachment is not what we are looking for. We should all work to understand that everything we observe occurring, around us and in the interactions with us as leaders, is a piece of data for us to use to move to productive resolution. Hearing disagreement or difference of thought and opinion tells you more about the world around you often than you knew before. Let yourself explore your partner’s or team’s motivators, thought process, and assumptions. Take from it a greater understanding of them, and in that explore the possibility of the different thought or solution they have gifted you with.

  2. Perhaps it’s data about you. If you feel an extreme emotional reaction to what you are hearing or being challenged with, explore that. What are the triggers for you that bring a rush of anger or frustration? Do you feel as if your credibility is being threatened? Your authority being challenged? Your power being undermined? Those are all signs that greater understanding of your own needs and motivation are needed to reframe and see the issue for what it really is.

  3. It isn’t about being right, it is about making the right decision. Ultimately the win-lose tally should start with the organization results in mind – not yours and your partner’s. Reset the bar for how you will measure “good” and encourage a conversation that reaches alignment around how you will measure the impact of your decision. Define that first, and then the answer second.

  4. Make sure you give decision-making its own time and space. All too often we enter into a “quick conversation” because we believe the answer is self-evident and what we are really looking for as leaders is compliance, not dialogue and/or alignment. Putting together the right atmosphere for difference at work is as important as doing it at home (more so – your team can walk away, your children have less options). Don’t short circuit the exploration of opinion, emotion and connection, or commitment to an issue. Give yourself and your team time to ground itself on what really matters before you jump to the heart of a set of core differences. If you do it on accident, look for the cues and restart the process with new grounding and appreciation.

Whether you are deciding where to invest millions or where to spend the weekend. Whether you are in the board room or in the living room. Disagreement is inevitable. With these four pointers we hope that you can resist the urge to be defensive and embrace the need for difference when making the best decision for all.


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