Wrong! Disagreement and dysfunction

Commenting on a recent hard-fought byelection, The Age economics writer Tim Colebatch made a plea for some cooperation, observing , “in reality, most of us agree on most things.”  http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/politics/most-of-us-agree-on-most-things-so-why-such-partisanship-20120723-22khc.html

It’s a commonplace: that the things that unite us are stronger than the things that divide us. (Stay with me, I’m going to get practical shortly, but I want to tell a story first).

Four years ago, I facilitated the “Rural Industries and Communities” strand at the Australia 2020 Summit – one hundred leaders, activists and prominent “thinkers” in an area where there is substantial potential for conflict around development, conservation, the role of government, etc. Twenty working groups each presented one or two ideas to the plenary session, and, rather than invite discussion, I asked each participant to rate the idea on a scale of 1-5 (strongly disagree through strongly agree). At the end of the day, we analyzed the responses. As I recall, not one idea had more than 10 people disagreeing or strongly disagreeing – i.e. at least 90 of the 100 participants agreed or were at least neutral.  In most cases the support was higher.

BUT… the next morning, the session co-chair, former Nationals leader and Deputy PM Tim Fischer, invited discussion on the ideas in a “town hall meeting” format. There was passionate debate, and the distinct impression was that each of the topics was highly controversial and subject to substantial disagreement. It teased out the issues and problems all right, but you’d never have guessed the broad level of support.

It’s the nature of politics, the media and the legal system to emphasize disagreements. And in writing: as Syd Field says, without conflict there is no drama; without drama there is no story…

Which brings me to being practical. In all aspects of my work, I encounter disagreements. In facilitation, a disagreement is often the reason for the workshop or meeting. In my advanced consulting skills classes, most case studies brought by participants focus on a disagreement. Right now, I’m watching the (extended) correspondence between two data modeling experts on choice of conventions. And when my editor sends me “suggestions” she’s saying, implicitly, “I disagree with the way you’ve done this.”

Great. Debate teases out the issues. But most of us seem to be better at fueling disagreement than resolving it. There comes a point where we need to move forward and we are not so good at this. The debate goes on “beyond the tag”, progress is stymied, relationships are damaged, and the will to cooperate on implementation is sapped.

My advice is pretty basic and hardly original: Constantly remind yourselves of the things you agree on. Play them back. Write them down. Recognize that you will be working together to do these things going forward if you can get over the things you disagree on.

Yes, it’s simple, but not as simplistic as what one of my screenwriting teachers used to call, inelegantly, the ‘shit sandwich’: Say something positive, deliver the tough message, say something positive again. What I’m proposing is not about platitudes or formulas – it’s about genuinely recognizing the common ground. If I believe my editor genuinely loves the story and the main character, then I’ll be receptive to her suggestions as to how to make them stronger on the page. But if the suggestions come without the common starting point, then I’ll just see them as an attempt to impose her own vision.

Basic stuff? Maybe. But I make a living out of coming into situations where it hasn’t been done. Feel free to call it basic if you do it all the time. Otherwise it’s time to get the basics in place.

And, in contrast to the usual warning – DO try this at home.

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