Handling Differences Productively

Gregorio Billikopf Encina
University of California

Wherever choices exist there is potential for disagreement. Such differences, when handled properly, can result in richer, more effective, creative solutions. But alas, it is difficult to consistently turn differences into opportunities. When disagreement is poorly dealt with, the outcome can be contention. Contention creates a sense of psychological distance between people, such as feelings of dislike, alienation, and disregard.

When faced with challenges, we tend to review possible alternatives and come up with the best solution given the data at hand. Unwanted options are discarded. While some decisions may take careful consideration, analysis and even agony, we solve others almost instinctively. Our best solution becomes our position or stance in the matter. Our needs, concerns and fears all play a part in coming up with such a position. Misunderstanding and dissent grow their ugly heads when our solution is not the same as theirs.

Several foes often combine to create contention.

    • Our first enemy is our natural need to want to explain our side first. After all, we reason, if they understood our perspective, they would come to the same conclusions we did.
    • Our second enemy is our ineffectiveness as listeners. Listening is much more than being quiet so we can have our turn.
    • Our third enemy is fear. Fear that we will not get our way. Fear of losing something we cherish. Fear we will be made to look foolish.
    • Our fourth enemy is the assumption that one of us has to lose if the other is going to win. That differences can only be solved competitively.

The good news is that there are simple and effective tools to spin positive solutions out of disagreements. But let not the simplicity of the concepts obscure the challenge of carrying them out consistently.

Tools for Improved Communication

Two principles have contributed so much to the productive handling of disagreements that it is difficult to read about the subject in popular or scholarly works without their mention. The first principle, "Seek first to understand, then to be understood," was introduced by Steven Covey, in Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. If we encourage others to explain their side first, then they will be more apt to listen to ours.

Let me illustrate. As a researcher I sometimes need to interview farm personnel on their feelings about various subjects. It takes trust on the part of farmers to permit me to interview employees on what are often sensitive issues. While I have been quite successful, one day I came across a farm owner who was less than enthusiastic about my project. It was clear from his words and tone that I would not be interviewing anyone at this farm enterprise. I switched my focus to listening.

The farmer shared concerns on a number of troublesome issues. Eventually we parted amiably and half way to my vehicle the farmer yelled, "Go ahead!"

"Go ahead and what?" I inquired somewhat confused. To my surprise he retorted, "Go ahead and interview my workers." I had long discarded any hope of talking to any of the personnel at this ranch, but the Covey principle was at work.

The second communication principle was introduced by Roger Fisher and William Ury in their seminal work, Getting to Yes. Simply stated, it is that people in disagreement focus on their positions when instead they should be focusing on their needs. By focusing on positions we tend to underscore our disagreements. When we concentrate on needs, we find we have more in common than what we had assumed. Ury and Fisher then went on to say that when we focus on needs we can attempt to satisfy the sum of both our needs and their needs.

When the light goes on we realize that it is not a zero sum game, where one person has to lose for the other to win. Nor is it necessary to solve disagreements with a lame compromise. Instead, often both parties can be winners.

Putting it all together

If we come right out and tell someone that we disagree, we are likely to alienate the person. On the other hand, if we put all our needs aside to focus on another personís perspective, problems may also develop. The other party may think we have no needs and may then be taken aback when we introduce them all of a sudden.

In order to avoid such unproductive shock, I like the idea of saying something along these lines: "I see that we look at this issue from different perspectives. While I want to share my needs and views with you later, let me first focus on your thoughts and observations." At this point we can put our needs aside, attempt to truly listen, and say: "So, help me understand what your concerns are regarding ...."

That is the easy part. The difficulty comes in fulfilling our resolution to really listen. We must resist the tendency to interrupt with objections no matter how unfounded some of the comments may seem. Nor can we, as we said earlier, fill our time composing the perfect comeback.

I distinctly remember one circumstance where I found myself conversing with a fellow, and while he spoke, telling him, "I understand." I was suddenly struck that what I was doing was not effective listening. My interest was more in having him finish quickly so I could present my perspective, rather than in understanding him.

Instead of telling someone that we understand, we can be much more effective by revealing exactly what it is that we understand. It is necessary not only to comprehend, but for the other person to feel understood. Once both of us have laid out our concerns, we can then focus on finding a creative solution.

For more information on handling differences, see Conflict Management chapter under book.

© 1999 by The Regents of the University of California and Gregorio Billikopf
Agricultural Extension, Stanislaus County. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the written permission of the publisher and the author. Printing this electronic Web page is permitted for personal, non-commercial use as long as the author and the University of California are credited.

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15 November 2004