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Collaboration through disagreement

4 min read

Management van Schalkwyk

The ability to disagree effectively is critical in creating alignment and shaping direction. It’s also an important aspect of generating creative solutions. When we can hold a firm commitment to our own opinion and blend that with openness to another person’s divergent point of view, disagreement becomes a dynamic opportunity to expand our thinking.

In order for a disagreement to be effective, we must let go of being certain that our opinion is the only right one and stay present with the creative evolution of the discourse. Something new can emerge that is much larger than the sum of two parts or points of view.

Unfortunately, in a disagreement, we often focus on the idea or problem rather than on the person. Disagreements begin to feel like shoving matches rather than opportunities to discover a new solution.

Certainly, this has become a centralizing focus of partisan politics in the United States. The great tragedy of this is that it cuts our political leaders off from robust discourse on ideas and principles and instead, pulls the conversation to an immature level of name-calling and personal attack.

It can be challenging to take a stand for what we believe in while at the same time responding to input from the world around us. Here are a few keys that will help.

Be curious: Curiosity is expansive. By letting go of the task of producing the one right answer, we open up to multiple possibilities. Being curious doesn’t mean you have to give up your point of view. Instead, curiosity demonstrates that you find the other person’s point of view valid even if it is wildly different from yours.

Listen deeply: Generally, we are so focused on results that we become preoccupied with the task rather than the person. This interferes with our ability to really listen deeply to another person.

For disagreement to be productive, we need to listen deeply beyond whether we agree or not with what is being said. This can be difficult. In a disagreement, we tend to put our attention on our own internal dialog and whether we agree with what is being said. It takes practice and discipline to shift our attention beyond our internal dialogue and focus it firmly on another person.

It’s helpful to imagine our listening as a spotlight. When we are listening to our own internal dialog, that’s what gets illuminated. When we discipline ourselves to point the spotlight of our listening toward another person, the impact can be tremendous.

Seek to understand: True understanding reaches far beyond a cognitive understanding of someone’s opinion. Instead, it’s useful to really stand under the other person in a way that has you step into their world. Asking open-ended questions will assist you in standing under all of what the other person is representing. What is important to them about this issue? What elements inform their perspective?

Go for alignment rather than agreement: While people might argue forever on the particulars of an issue, there is usually a deeper place of alignment that lies underneath each person’s point of view. Two people might disagree passionately about the best way to launch a new product. By standing under each other as discussed above, they can usually find a deeper place of alignment.

For example, they might discover that they both care deeply about innovation in the marketplace. Once they have found this alignment they can work together to generate a new solution, a third way, which is even better than the original vision of either person. Far beyond a mere compromise, this “third way” solution is born from the creative tension of the original disagreement and carries previously unavailable possibilities.

In summary, it is our differences, not our sameness, that unites us. When we can disagree effectively, we can move forward in a partnership, generating new solutions and working together for the highest good of all.

Karen Kimsey-House is the CEO of The Coaches Training Institute, a global coaching and leadership development organization offering programs in 20 different countries. Additionally, Karen is the co-author of “Co-Active Coaching and Co-Active Leadership” and a frequent blogger for The Huffington Post. For more information about Karen’s work go to

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