Skip to main content

Author: Ian McClean

How to Get To Agreement When You Disagree

It is assumed that if a person has a high IQ, then it follows they will automatically have the smarts to manage the people side of productivity.

Most, in truth, really struggle and there is plenty of research out there to suggest that precisely the opposite is true. This Hi-IQ = Hi-EQ assumption underlines a real and universal cultural blind-spot.

It is precisely why executives regularly find themselves spending 20 hours or more per week (of the 72!) tidying up ‘Residue’ – the unintended fall-out (emails, side-meetings, car-park conversations etc.) from previous agreements that never happened in the first place, or (like a Syrian ceasefire) were simply assumed or, worse still, nodded at but never really committed to.

It is remarkable that such a core interpersonal skill is so uncared for considering we all spend so much of our everyday work and private lives reconciling differences – everything from forming governments; to formulating policy; to deciding business strategy; to agreeing where to spend the family holiday this summer.

The 5 Deadly Sins – What to avoid when reconciling differing views.

1. Imposing Your View

The assumption is that if you are trying to gain agreement, there is more than one view around the table. If you try to impose your view the best you can ever hope for is compliance. Others may nod and even say they agree (sometimes just to get out of the situation!). They will go along to get along. However, you will never get the full commitment. And worse than that by imposing your view, in many cases you will have driven resistance underground, and you will inevitably encounter passive resistance further down the line in the form of missed deadlines, shoddy standards, being mysteriously ‘unavailable’ or (in the case of your teenager) ‘oh, I just forgot…’ How often have you paid the price for the privilege of being right?

2. Not Speaking Up

The opposite of imposing your view, but is equally destructive to reaching an agreement. Instead of being honest and sharing what you think and feel, you put up and shut up. This inevitably leads to resentment on your part and a dilution of effort.

Most people default to either imposing their view or not speaking up depending on their nature in moments of polarity when there is tension, and both are equally detrimental when trying to get to an agreement.

3. Not Listening

The more we entrench ourselves in our position, the more likely it is we become closed to listening to the other side. We have been taught however that we should listen so we have trained ourselves to offer the pretense of listening by allowing the other person to go first, and even by nodding as if to appear to listen.

At this moment we are not truly listening – or, we are, but we are listening to respond rather than to understand. That is, paying close attention to their view in ‘search and destroy’ mode so that we can challenge, find the flaw or dismantle it. Worse than that, neuroscience now reveals that just when we thought we were getting away with it, the limbic brain apparently knows all along you are only pretending!

4. Failing to Acknowledge

Without truly listening to understand it is impossible to do No.4. Here’s a simple way to cut in half the time it takes to get to an agreement: Help the person on the other side feel understood BEFORE giving your solution or sharing your side. The reason we are reluctant to allow the other person to ‘go first’ is fear. Fear that if we listen, it is tantamount to agreeing with them. No. People just want to feel acknowledged on their side – their views, their rights, their values, and concerns. By listening and then acknowledging, it gives them the capacity to hear what’s on your side. Very few practice acknowledgment. The failure to do this comes at a price. It invariably extends the conversation interminably – sometimes into many subsequent conversations!

5. Assumptions

A couple were planning their vacation and eventually decided to travel to Canada. Things were great until they got into Canadian airspace and she turned to him and said: “You know, I am so happy as I have always wanted to visit Toronto.” To which he replied, “But I booked us to Vancouver.” Often agreements are undone by the finer assumptions that are made on either side. As GB Shaw once put it: “The greatest flaw in communication is the belief that it has happened.”

Finally, if you rinse and repeat the ‘5 Deadly Sins’ from above, you end up ultimately denuding the very resource that is the essence of the true agreement. Trust.

Gregg Brown of Greenline Conversations will be leading a workshop on this topic at the Project World/Business Analysis World Conference in Toronto on May 17.