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Productive Disagreement

by David Brock on July 5th, 2022

Wherever we turn, it seems we are becoming increasingly disagreeable and polarized. Whether socially, politically, or in our businesses, we struggle with disagreement. But there are a lot of problems with disagreement–or at least our ability to understand and manage disagreements, productively. If we learned how to deal with disagreement, productively, disagreement provides huge opportunities to learn, improve, grow, and achieve.

Disagreement can be very threatening. It raises our stress levels, disagreement makes us uncomfortable. Since disagreement can be so threatening, too often we display avoidance behaviors. Rather than address important issues and trying to resolve them, we avoid them. We see this in many engagements with our customers, we avoid talking about the most critical issues. Within our own organizations, often, we have a tendency to avoid confronting difficult issues in which we may disagree.

Disagreement can be personally threatening, we might actually be wrong, we might learn that we may need to change. We may misunderstand, we haven’t recognized some important data or other factors. That we may have to rethink and change our position, which is always threatening. It’s hard to admit we may have been wrong. And then, it’s often hard to make the changes we should make. We become so committed to what we have always done, we fear change.

Too often, in our efforts to resolve disagreement, we focus on rightness and wrongness, which makes everyone more disagreeable. As threatening as those feelings of rightness or wrongness, often, they translated into goodness and badness. We mistakenly move from a discussion of ideas to our value as human beings. Think to conversations you have had with customers who disagree with you. Too often, we come back to the office, frustrated, saying, “They are really turkeys! They don’t get it!” Or someone in the office, with whom we disagree, “She’s such a jerk!” The most dangerous thing in disagreement is to make that disagreement about the value of people, as human beings.

Our inability to deal with disagreement, productively, can adversely impact our ability to address new opportunities, to grow more effectively. If we cannot address and resolve disagreement, we fail to change. And in today’s world, the failure to learn, adapt, change and grow is, possibly one of the greatest threats we face in achieving our dreams and goals.

As sellers, we encounter disagreement constantly. Our customers may not recognize the need to change, they may fear it and resist it. They may have differing ideas on the proper path forward. They may not understand the issues or our approach to helping them improve. To often, when we need to disagree, productively, when we need to get the customer to think differently, we fail to do so. We fear being perceived as disagreeable, we live by the mantra, “the customer is always right,” when they actually may not be.

Our mindset impacts our ability to deal with disagreement. Those with closed mindsets have greater difficulty managing disagreement, because resolving the disagreement may require them to change, to rethink what they are doing.

Continuing to disagree, without finding ways to manage the disagreement, limits and eventually eliminates, our abilities to grow. It eliminates our ability to change, to achieve our goals. And in a world that demands change, or as sellers being instigators of change, the inability to manage disagreement causes all of us to fail.

In it’s worst manifestations, not failing to address disagreement drives greater polarization. We label others as bad and ourselves as good. And often, in defending ourselves and our position, we try to leverage “power.” Perhaps, as managers, we exercise our “power” over those who disagree with us. And in exercising that power, we tend to exclude those who are different or may disagree, surrounding ourselves with those who agree.

Failing to productively manage disagreement, avoiding it, becoming more polarized, begs a questions, “What are we afraid of? Why do we so fear considering a different perspective? Why do we so fear the possibility that we might need to change–or the possibility that reaffirms we may be doing the right thing?”

Bottom line, our inability to deal with disagreement, productively, limits us-as individuals, organizations, communities. It hurts us, it hurts our ability to learn, to adapt, to change, to recognize new opportunities, to grow, improve, and achieve.

Disagreements, however, can be very powerful, when productively handled. Fundamentally, disagreement can be a critical instigator to change. Without something/someone expressing a different idea, having a different dream, we may not recognize the need to do something differently. We may miss opportunities.

Alternatively, productively managed, disagreement can reaffirm that we are doing the right things.

To productively manage disagreement requires us to recognize no amount of persuasion, convincing, or other approach is successful until we choose to change. We don’t convince people to change or buy, but we enable them to choose to change through our productive engagement with them. And likewise we may choose to change based on how others engage us.

We see many organizations instituting productive disagreement as part of their culture. We “debate,” both to test our thinking, and to improve it. We do “red teaming,” to consider very different positions. We do scenario planning, to consider strategies to deal with different possibilities. We create contention management cultures, where we argue different positions, ultimately coming out with better solutions.

In our selling strategies, we learn how to incite customers to change, we learn collaborative conversations and how to address disagreement. Even things as simple as objection handling helps us better understand alternative positions.

And in the end, we may not agree, we may choose to disagree. We may recognize there is great power in people having differing ideas and points of view. That these differences make us better.

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2 Comments
  1. Brian MacIver permalink

    You are on a roll, Dave.

    Or, are paranormal.

    Disagreement, the lost art.

    Challenger Selling is FOUNDED on DISAGREEMENT.
    The Challenge.

    In behavioural research we see it poorly used.

    It should never be flagged first…(people don’t Listen)
    “I DISAGREE BECAUSE…”
    It is best to state the reason(s) THEN AND THAT’S WHY I DISAGREE.

    Many forget to state WHY the disagree,
    a simple I DISAGREE is not Disagreement BUT is a BLOCK, like NO!

    This produces disagreement spirals I disagree with you Disagreeing!

    When agreeing or Disagreeing REMEMBER to state WHY!

    • Brian, I seldom to this with your comments, but I disagree, your perspective is just plain wrong!

      Sorry, I just could not resist, you set this up so well 😉

      We are so poor at understanding and leveraging disagreement. Productive disagreement enables all of us to achieve more than we individually could.

      Thanks, as always, for sharing your wisdom.

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