Handling Disagreements and Conflicts at Work

Handling Disagreements and Conflicts at Work

Have you ever experienced the embarrassment of feeling so certain about your opinion and then later being proved wrong? Well, this has happened many times in my career. Feelings related to this kind of events stay fresh for a long time. The more certain I was in the beginning, the more embarrassed I felt when I realized I wasn’t totally right.

It’s common to have disagreements among engineers. Disagreements present great opportunities to learn from each other and innovate better approaches. Being wrong is nothing to be embarrassed about. What embarrassed me was my arrogance and stubbornness that made me assume I was right and others were wrong without even first hearing their arguments.

Something similar happened last week. Although I was thrilled by the outcome of the discussion, I once again made the mistake of assuming my approach was right and, in the end, felt embarrassed by my arrogance and stubbornness.

I decided to use this opportunity to take a closer look at the issue, combine my experiences with advice from resources I came across, and come up with a recipe for handling disagreements and conflicts at work. Or, I should say, a recipe for being more open-minded and less stubborn.

This post includes:

  • a recent disagreement at work as an example;
  • worst case scenarios of disagreements;
  • two different mindsets approaching disagreements;
  • steps for resolving disagreements.

A Recent Disagreement At work

A teammate and I had a disagreement about the approach to take for a task. In the beginning, I was so certain that I was right and he was wrong that I was impatient and interrupted him multiple times while he was making his case. As his viewpoint unfolded, I understood that each of our approaches had its advantages and disadvantages. After a long discussion, we came up with a new approach that combined the advantages of the two approaches we originally had in mind.

The new approach not only drastically reduced the amount of development time required but also improved the overall design of the system. I was so thrilled by the new approach that I kept talking about it with a big smile on my face for the rest of the day.

Besides the euphoria generated from the collaborative, creative problem-solving process, I also felt deeply embarrassed by my initial attitude when my teammate first raised his disagreement with my approach.

Worst Case Scenarios of Disagreements

1. You miss out on the opportunity to discover a better approach.

If instead of trying to see the other person’s point of view, my teammate and I insisted that the original approach each of us had was better than the other person’s, we might 've kept talking in circles without going anywhere. The new approach might have never arrived. We would have be so busy arguing with each other and have no time to innovate and solve the problem like a team.

When you are certain you are right, you leave no room for different opinions. You close the possibility that there’s a better way out there. You cannot improve and innovate when you are close-minded. You risk missing out the opportunity to discover a better approach.

2. Your teammate doesn’t feel heard.

Another worst case scenario is, because of your stubbornness, you cannot hear a word from your teammate. If all you do is express your own opinions without listening to your teammates’ arguments, you might be able to convince your teammate you are right, but they will walk away feeling they haven’t been heard and their opinions aren’t valued. These negative emotions hurt the team’s morale and make future collaboration harder and less fun.

Two Different Mindsets Approaching Disagreements

Disagreements are inevitable. Unless you only work with clones of yourself, there will be disagreements. There are two fundamentally different mindsets to approach disagreements.

1. Treating disagreements as bumps in the road. The goal is to get over it as fast as possible.

This was my default mindset towards disagreements. With this mindset, when a disagreement came up, naturally, I became a bit frustrated and impatient. While the other party was making their case, I always had an urge to interrupt them because I wanted to convince them and tried to finish the discussion as fast as possible.

I tended to have lots of mixed feelings at the beginning of a disagreement. I felt the pressure to prove that I’m right, the pressure from the false urgency in my mind, the urge to interrupt people, and the guilt from being rude. As a result, I never enjoyed the beginning of a discussion triggered by disagreements.

2. Treating disagreements as gifts. The goal is to get as much value out of it as possible.

This is a more positive mindset. Disagreements are gifts because the process of resolving them might inspire better and more innovative solutions. Ultimately, disagreements come from either the different experiences we have in the past with related subjects or the different priorities we have in mind. As a result, disagreements are great opportunities to learn from each other and get on the same page.

Approaching disagreements as gifts automatically sets you in a positive mood when disagreements come up. It makes discussions more enjoyable and helps you get more value out of them.

Steps for Resolving Disagreements

After we adopt a positive mindset towards disagreements, here are the concrete steps we can follow to resolve them.

1. Are you rushing the conversation? Is it necessary to rush?

If you are like me and tend to be impatient, at the beginning of the discussion, check with yourself to see if you are trying to rush through it. If so, ask yourself if there is really a need to rush. Is the sense of urgency from the project itself, or it was triggered by you wanting to defend your position? Most discussions take about 40 to 90 mins. Most of the time, things are not that urgent and you can afford the time.

As we discussed above, the worst case is, because of your false sense of urgency and defensiveness, your teammate doesn’t feel heard during the discussion.

2. Discuss the significance of the matter and time box the discussion if needed.

Maybe it simply doesn’t matter which approach you go with. The significance of the matter determines how much time it’s worth spending on the discussion. The tricky thing is you and your teammates might disagree on its significance. If that’s the case, time box the discussion and follow the next steps.

When you don’t see the significance but your teammates hold strong opinions, you should give this matter more attention and hear your teammates out. After all, you should never assume you are right.

3. Never assume you are right. Use the 80-20 Rule of Conflict.

As silly as it sounds, we often treat our own beliefs as if they are facts. When we assume we are right and others are wrong, we are attached to our opinions and find it hard to listen to others’ with an open mind.

It’s hard to convince ourselves we are wrong when disagreements first rise. We are so familiar with our own opinions that they always seem to be obviously true. The 80-20 Rule of Conflict from Positive Intelligence is helpful in such cases. Here is the definition from the book with small modifications.

The 80-20 Rule of Conflict:

It is a rare conflict in which anyone is 100 percent wrong. As a rule of thumb, I tell people in a conflict to remember that they are at least 20 percent wrong. Encourage people to shift from trying to prove the other person’s 80 percent wrong to discovering the 20 percent that they are correct. This shifts the focus of the conversation from proving to exploration and curiosity.

4. Turn it into an investigation. Instead of asking “which one of us is right”, ask “Why do we see this differently”1.

When differences arise, we tend to ask “which one of us is right”. This question is not helpful. a) It divides people into groups where each group feels the urge to defend their positions and prove other positions are wrong. b) It also frames the discussion to be about picking a solution among the given set of presented solutions.

Why do we see this differently” is a better question to ask. This question turns the discussion into a collaborative investigation where the group works together with one common goal in mind - to better understand each other’s position and reasonings.

Positive Intelligence presents The Iceberg of Conflict:

Screen Shot 2019-02-19 at 9.03.35 PM

When we ask “which one of us is right”, we focus on the Position level. Conflict is rarely resolved in the Position level.

At this level, one party or the other needs to give up its own position entirely, or the two need to meet somewhere in between, which would result in each feeling they had compromised. This is not an optimal way to resolve conflict on major issues. - Positive Intelligence

When we ask “why do we see this differently”, we dive deeper into the Assumptions level and Aspirations level. Assumptions and aspirations are the underlying reasons that form our positions. When we discuss our assumptions and aspirations, we can understand why the other party holds such positions.

Sometimes we hold different positions because we have different assumptions. When we address the assumptions directly, it becomes clear to both parties which position, if any, makes sense.

Sometimes we see things differently because we have different priorities and try to achieve different things. When we examine the underlying priorities and motives directly, we understand where each other coming from. If these priorities and motives are compatible, we might even be able to come up with a better solution that satisfies both parties’ priorities and motives.

That was the case last week. My teammate’s underlying motive for his approach was to avoid unnecessary manual work and speed up the project. And my motive was to avoid introducing further couplings between two systems. After our motives were out in the air, we came up with a new approach that satisfied both.

5. Shut up and listen.

It’s worth emphasizing again: make sure your teammates feel heard. Making sure your teammates feel heard is critical for your relationship with your teammates, the team’s morale, and the ongoing success of the project.

If you tend to talk over others in discussions, the best way to make sure this is to, literally, force yourself to shut up and listen for two minutes.

6. Other useful techniques:

a) rephrase what you hear, b) draw on whiteboards if that helps, and c) sometimes it’s easier to write a small code snippet to show exactly what you mean.

To be honest, I don’t expect to get rid of my stubbornness in one day. I will try out this recipe and update here with new findings. I would love to hear what has worked for you and your team as well. 🙂

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My career plan for the year is to grow into a tech lead. I’m excited about all the learnings ahead and would love to share this journey with you in a brutally honest fashion. I will be sharing my weekly learning on the blog.

In the next few months, I will focus on growing in the following areas. You can expect to see posts related to them:

  • focusing on the big picture of the project instead of near-term implementation details;
  • balancing my efforts between leading projects and coding;
  • work-life balance for long-term productivity;
  • the human side of software development: making sure everyone riding with me enjoys the ride and feels fulfilled and inspired.

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[1] From How to Talk to People About Things.

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