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Corporate Minds

Find Your Middle Ground

How to overcome disagreements and open up dialogues in the business world.
Rose Cammarata VP & Controller, Mattersight


I think we can all agree that 2016 has been a tumultuous year. or maybe we can't.
If social media is any indication, agreeing to disagree has become the only acceptable alternative to preserving civility and relationships. The problem with that is it may leave us standing on opposite sides of a line (and in some cases a moat) with no way to move forward.

When dealing with personal situations, sometimes this is in fact the best and only civil outcome. However, in an ever-changing business environment, stalemates equate to doing nothing. Sometimes doing nothing is the right decision, but it should be a mutual and deliberate decision and not one simply made by default.

So how do we move past disagreements and onto productive dialogue that leads to workable solutions? Here are a few ideas.

Take a deep breath (or two)

This is an incredibly difficult thing to do in the middle of an argument, but it can be very effective in de-escalating the situation because it disrupts our fight-or-flight response—you know, that survival mechanism that’s triggered when we experience elevated stress levels.

When triggered, our fight-or-flight tendencies cause us to perceive everything around us as a potential threat. These stressful situations also cause the body to release cortisol, aka “the stress hormone,” which has been shown to impair learning and memory.

Thankfully, taking deep breaths, a technique first developed at Harvard Medical School by cardiologist Dr. Herbert Benson, invokes a parasympathetic "relaxation response" that counters the fight-or-flight response and cortisol effect. So get a glass of water or whatever else you need to give yourself a breather, literally.

Mind your motives

In Crucial Conversations, authors Patterson, Grenney, et al advocate starting with “heart” in difficult conversations, which means beginning the discussion with the right motives and staying focused on them throughout—like taking a deep breath, this is not always an easy thing to do.

In the heat of an argument, our motives are the first things to falter, largely because of that flight-or-fight response we just talked about. We move from wanting to find a solution to wanting to win the argument or to escape it.

If I'm heading into what I know will be a contentious discussion, I find it helps to write down my goals for that discussion in advance, and to take that note along with me. It serves as a tangible reminder of where my focus should be just in case the discussion starts to escalate.

Know the goal

While you're keeping a check on your own motives, ask yourself if you've made any assumptions about the other person's goals. Even if you really did hear what you thought you heard, did you understand it in the way it was intended? Intent and motivation are critical in developing an understanding of others, and we humans are notoriously overconfident about our ability to know someone else's intentions. Maybe you're an optimist who tends to give people the benefit of the doubt. Maybe you're a pessimist who tends to assume the worst. Either way, you're probably wrong.  

So seek out the truth with an open mind. I've found it helpful to start a discussion by asking the other person what they'd like to accomplish from the discourse. This question also can be used to de-escalate an exchange if it becomes heated.

If you’re thinking that this all sounds hard to do, it is. Engaging in meaningful dialogue that moves people past disagreement is never easy, but it's absolutely necessary, and in my experience, it's definitely worth the effort.

But if you happen to disagree, I'd be more than happy to discuss it.