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How to Disagree Agreeably

The best ways to compromise, clear the air, and fight fair.

By Eric Messinger
Illustration of co-workers disagreeingRoss MacDonald
Yankees and Red Sox. Red states and blue states. Your seven-year-old and your nine-year-old. Humans, it seems, are wired for disagreements. These conflicts can be angry, awkward messes, or they can be civil exchanges of viewpoints that lead to better decisions at work and closer relationships at home. What makes the difference is usually not the issue at hand but how it is handled. Here, then, are the rules of engagement, followed by tips on how to speak your mind (to almost anyone). No bench-clearing brawls, no threats of secession, no backseat turf wars involved.

The Rules of Engagement
Keep these in mind at your next impasse; they might help you avoid an unproductive argument.

 1. Pick your battles. “You do not have to address every injustice or irritation that comes along,” says Harriet Lerner, author of The Dance of Anger: A Woman’s Guide to Changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships. “But it is a mistake to stay silent when an issue matters and the cost of silence is feeling bitter, resentful, or disconnected.”

 2. Understand the stakes. Even if you think that you know the other person’s issues, it can’t hurt to pose a direct question. Ask “ ‘What’s your real concern here?’ ” says Rebecca Zucker, cofounder of Next Step Partners, an executive-coaching and leadership-development firm in San Francisco. “Often she’s not really voicing it.”

 3. Wait until you’re calm. When emotions run high, disagreements can turn personal, and that’s rarely productive. Recognize when emotions are charged, and don’t have the conversation until you have a cool head.

 4. Be respectful. If someone thinks you’re listening thoughtfully, she is more likely to respond in kind. An empathetic phrase, such as “I understand how you feel,” can go a long way.

 5. Speak for yourself. Rather than criticizing the other person, stick to expressing your own feelings and actions (“I felt hurt when…” or “I’m concerned because…”). “It’s honest and authentic when you say how you truly view a situation,” says Jennell Evans, cofounder of the Washington, D.C.–based consulting firm Strategic Interactions.

 6. Don’t interrogate. Try not to go on a lawyerlike attack with a litany of yes-or-no questions. This tack is aggressive, puts the other person on the defensive, and can belittle her, Zucker says.

 7. State the facts. If you have them, use them. Facts give opinions and feelings a lot more credibility. It also helps that “they aren’t personal or emotional,” so they can help make your disagreement constructive, Zucker says. Just make sure you really do have the facts. At the very least, you should be able to name your source.

 8. Speak to common interests. Keep the common goal and good in mind. Remember: If an argument turns nasty, nobody wins. Tell the person how much she means to you and how much you value her opinion.

 9. Aim to clear the air rather than win. In many instances, the disagreement will end in détente. Don’t try to win the argument; it’s more important to focus on understanding why the other person thinks differently than you do.

 10. Consider compromise. It doesn’t get you exactly what you want, but it can be an effective way for people to overcome a disagreement and move forward. Remember: A compromise doesn’t have to be equal to be acceptable. However, it is important for you to understand what you’re both giving up and to be comfortable with that equation. “You don’t have to feel happy about a compromise, but you have to feel you can live with it,” says Robin Hoberman-Becker, a mediator and divorce lawyer in Chicago.
Read More About:Work & Life

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