I am sure you agree, but should I be?

I write this blog in WordPress and it gets published in both LinkedIn and Twitter. Sometimes I get a comment on either WordPress or LinkedIn and I feel good and sometimes reply with a short comment in response.

Anyway, last week I got a comment from Glenda, about my blog on disagreeing with people. She was not disagreeing with me, but rather pushing the conversation into a new space:

… Maybe your next one can be on how to respond when the shoe is on the other foot and someone else is disagreeing with us.

Glenda Mitchell

I read the comment and thought about it briefly. My initial view was that is is similar to when we hear something we disagree with. Later on though, I thought about it a bit more I realised that there are differences.

Hopefully Glenda does not mind me using her name here (I haven’t checked with her) – but to double down on my mistake, I thought I would share the difference between “Glenda disagreeing with me” and “some twitter person disagreeing with me” because I hate to admit it, but there is a world of difference.

When Glenda disagrees with me

Assuming you do not know Glenda or me very well, then I think it is useful for you to know two things:

  • Glenda and I first worked together many years ago and we have a long history of both agreeing and disagreeing; and
  • Glenda is particularly good at disagreeing.

Let me start with the second point.

By “good at disagreeing” I do not mean that Glenda disagrees a lot. I mean that she is very good at listening, forming a coherent view before commenting, and then speaking to people with respect.

All of this means that when Glenda disagrees with me she is responding to what I said, she is clear on what she is saying and she shows respect for me when she disagrees with something I have said.

Based on that, I would say that if someone is that eloquent in disagreeing with me then it is pretty easy for me to respond appropriately. The tougher question is how to respond when someone disagrees but is less eloquent:

  • They do not appear to have listened;
  • They did not make their point clearly; and
  • I perceived their response as rude, dismissive or arrogant.

That makes things a lot harder.

But let’s say that for some inexplicable reason, Glenda did respond ineloquently one day. It would probably still be OK, because we “have a long history of agreeing and disagreeing”.

The fact that Glenda and I have crossed paths many times, in different contexts and including situations with an element of conflict in them, means that we have often been in situations where we shared common viewpoints or we were pursuing common goals.

The weight of that history means that any single disagreement or unexpected reaction seems smaller in context than it would if it was our first ever discussion.

Similarly, we have disagreed often in the past. Many times this resulted in us discussing out points of disagreement and then coming to a better shared view at the end. Clearly, that sets up the expectation that the next disagreement will be the same.

As it turns out then, I am pretty good at disagreeing with Glenda, because it occurs in an ideal situation, optimised for me to feel safe to disagree and for me to expect that when Glenda disagrees with me, her view is coming from a good place and is still open for me to express my view.

A less ideal case study

Let’s make things a little tougher. What if:

  • We have not created trust through a long history of successful collaboration (and disagreement);
  • They do not appear to have listened;
  • They did not make their point clearly; and
  • I perceived their response as rude, dismissive or arrogant.

Psychological standing

People talk about psychological safety and a specific part of that is something we could call “Psychological Standing”, or the right to be heard in a specific situation.

I grew up in a family where we were allowed, even expected, to express our own views.

That expectation was strengthened for me when I went to work with people who tackled technically challenging problems while working in a culture of mutual support. Being inexperienced in technical matters, I had to share my ignorance and was rewarded every time with a chance to learn and to participate in challenging the thinking of others, who often had a lot more experience than me.

That primed me to always express my opinion and to assume that others would do the same.

But later on I worked for another company, where I openly disagreed with my boss in front of the whole team. I was honestly surprised that I was expected NOT to do that. I was told that “my views were welcome, but it would be better to share them offline.”

I suddenly learned what many others knew – sometimes you are not welcome to share your thinking. For others who learned that lesson earlier than I did, I guess my assumption that they will always let me know when they disagree, is not a good assumption at all.

Years later again, there was a movement in America called the “Me-Too” movement, where women called out appalling behaviour in the workplace. Some women at work were talking about it and I was about to join in the conversation when I hesitated. Should I, as a man from a privileged background, who had never experienced abuse, actually share a view on something I had no experience with?

I found an excellent article in HBR that used the term “Psychological Standing” to refer to the feeling someone has, that they have a right to speak on a subject, in a particular forum. It was about the contentious space of men speaking about “gender parity” in the workplace.

OK – but this is about when it is appropriate for me to speak up, not about when someone speaks up to disagree with me. But this is actually where I face a real challenge.

Since I have always assumed I have the right (and expectation) to speak up, I naturally assume others will do so too. That means when nobody speaks I can mistake hesitation (or even good manners) for agreement.

It also means that when someone does disagree I have a tendency to jump in and start to explain why I am right, rather than pausing to acknowledge their point and someone show it is safe for others to disagree.

I have worked on this over the years and I think I am now better at it, but it is still something to be aware of.

In fact even before responding to someone who disagrees with me, I try to encourage a feeling of “Psychological standing” or the right to be heard. But it is not as easy as just saying the words “feel free to speak up.”

There are certainly arguments that I think are off limit and I think we should have the right to say that in a discussion, especially in a work setting. But there are also many situations where people are unsure of their right to speak and when they test the waters by disagreeing the first time, the way we respond sends a powerful message about their real right to speak.

You can tell me as often as you want that my views are welcome, but if you shut me down the first 3 times I speak out then I know that what you mean is my willingness to agree with your views is always welcome.

On the other hand if we can establish that we do not need to agree and that we can express our own views safely, through our actions, then we will have better discussions.

Ineloquent people who are wrong

When people do not listen to what we say, it is natural to write them off or simply repeat our views until they listen. Unfortunately then you have two people who are not listening. My father explained this to me as the “bozo hypothesis“.

So, once we signal that others can disagree with us, then we need to recognise that we might not be clear on where we are disagreeing. So the first step to responding to someone who disagrees, is to try to understand their perspective, rather than writing them off because they were not wise enough to understand our own views.

Once we understand how and where they disagree (even if not why they do) then we can start having a disagreement. We might end up realising that we will never agree, or we might reach a point where we realise that we were both partially right and come to a point where we are both much wiser.

Even if we can’t get them to fully understand, at least we can gain greater insight from them. As the old saying goes – the difference between a wise man and a fool is that the wise man can learn something new from anyone, even a fool, while the fool will not learn something new from anyone, even a wise man.

Imperfect disagreement is the norm

It would be great if everyone who disagreed with me could eloquently explain their thinking and their reasoning to me very clearly. I would immediately understand the point where they disagreed and I would have sufficient context to respond to their comments.

Sadly, if we can only disagree with people who clearly explain their relevant and pertinent points, then we are not going to handle 99% of conversations well.

When people disagree with me, they often frame their view as a leading question, they often hide it in wording designed to make sure I know they are not attacking me and they often blurt out a half formed view, that I half listen to before thinking that I understand it.

Obviously, it is better to pause and explore their view, rather than either attacking the structure of their view or responding to the point I would like them to have made.

So after acknowledging or thanking them for their point it is really good to actually pause to clarify and listen to their point.

The more I understand someone else and the more I demonstrate a willingness to do so, the better I will be understood myself and the more I will enjoy the disagreements that I have.

Rude people are still annoying

Sadly, even when I really understand what someone is saying, they might still be wrong or annoying in their view. They might also be obstinate and rude when they express their views.

When this is the case I think there are two points to remember:

  • You do not need to agree, nor to be treated badly.
  • If you disagree on one thing, you can still agree on others

I believe strongly in the power of vaccines to protect us from disease. I don’t think someone will ever convince me otherwise. In fact I also believe that the school my daughter goes to should have the right to tell people to only send their kids to the school if they have been vaccinated against measles (for example).

You might not agree but it would be a shame if you felt that you needed to pretend to agree, if you wanted to be my friend. Similarly, you or I might feel the need to correct the wrong thinking of the other, well beyond when it seems possible, but doing so could damage an otherwise good relationship.

So both of us has the right to have our own controversial views and sometimes that means something is even unacceptable to us. I will vote against any party that tries to legalise machine guns in Australia and I will lobby for schools to have the right to have a vaccine mandate. But I cannot demand that you agree with me.

Similarly neither of us is defined by a single view on a single topic. We might disagree over the appropriateness of both vaccines and machine guns, but we surely still have many things we can agree on.

Thus I can call out when I think you are wrong and also when I think you are rude. But I should also accept that you might not think you were either wrong or rude.

So I guess that gracefully responding to someone who disagrees with me, in an ideal situation is easy. Things are a bit harder if the wrong factors are in place.

I guess that is a long answer to a short question – but I am sure you all agree with me 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.