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5 Questions You'll Need to Settle Workplace Disagreements

A message pops up in the company chat channel: A new marketing idea “for discussion” from a colleague. You’re immediately irritated, because you’ve got a hundred other things on your plate and deadlines looming – but you also have strong opinions and want to ensure they’re heard. You compose a terse reply, aware that it’s lacking finesse but intent on getting back to your “real” work.

Soon enough, the discussion escalates with other team members weighing in on all sides. It’s obvious the issue is controversial. You can read the emotional tension between the lines, and it appears battle lines are being drawn.

As collaboration becomes essential for any job, it’s not “if” but “when” you will get into a disagreement with your colleagues. So when it does happen, what are your options for de-escalating a disagreement in the workplace and finding resolution quickly? In my experience, the most critical ingredient to settling conflicts is clarity on the grounds of disagreement. This isn’t always as simple as it seems, because while it may appear that you’re arguing over deadlines, typography, or project roles, there are often unspoken tensions at play that lie well below the surface.

The most critical ingredient to settling conflicts is clarity on the grounds of disagreement. 

Over many years of collaborative creative work, I’ve developed a toolbox of key questions for getting to the root of conflict and finding a path forward. Here are my top five (with a bonus lightning round at the end).

Question 1: “Are we arguing about intent or impact?”

When workplace disagreements reach a fever pitch, there are often interpersonal issues at play alongside a difference of opinion. Hands-down, the most transformative framework I’ve discovered for handling slighted feelings or quiet tension is that of intent versus impact.

At the risk of oversimplifying the concept, when we get emotionally triggered by someone, we often attribute intent to their behavior – which may or may not be actually present. Perhaps they leave us out of an email thread and when we get wind of it, we perceive the omission as deliberate. Or we get so excited that we talk over someone in a meeting, and they assume we’re intentionally silencing them.

This can move us in different directions: seethingly resentful or openly hostile are two common results. But the tension can be overcome by having a conversation that focuses on the impacts of behavior rather than bickering over intent. The fact is, intent doesn’t matter, if the impact is negative. And that impact must be addressed if you’re to move forward.

If you suspect an intent vs impact conversation is in order, try broaching the subject with an opener like, “I’m not sure what your intent was when you made that comment, but the impact on me was ________,” or “I’m concerned that when I said X, it may have had an unintended impact of ________.” Then invite the other party to share their perspective, and do your best to listen with an open mind.

 Tension can be overcome by having a conversation that focuses on the impacts of behavior rather than bickering over intent.

Question 2: “What are our goals here?”

Nothing stokes conflict better than a misunderstanding of goals. One party might as well be trying to solve a problem the other person doesn’t even see – if you’ve assumed the wrong end point (or assumed that the other people involved are on board with yours, without expressly articulating it), productive conversation will be hard to come by.

A friend of mine recently hit up against this issue when mentoring a junior designer who kept coming to him with ideas: “What if we make it this color? What if we used this technology?” The junior colleague’s approach wasn’t conducive to collaboration because he failed to articulate the problems he was trying to solve – or put another way, the goals he was trying to achieve – through his suggestions. Now that he’s learned to reframe his comments to identify a problem first, he’s better able to convince his colleagues to see the benefits of his proposed solutions.

If you can agree on your goals, you’re at least halfway to finding common ground for agreement on how to reach them.

Question 3: “Are our priorities aligned?”

Even if everyone agrees on the big-picture goals, individual team members are liable to have different priorities based on their area of responsibility, personal work style, and workload (just how many “important” issues can you reasonably expect to tackle in a day?).

We’re all familiar with the “pick any two” rule when weighing fast, good, and cheap as project priorities – and you’ve probably heard of Stephen Covey’s important-vs-urgent matrix. These are both useful tools for checking your colleagues’ priorities. Ask them to clarify their priorities, and articulate yours so you can assess whether a priority mismatch is to blame for your disagreement.

It could well be that your teammate’s insistence on sourcing the least expensive materials is in tension with your commitment to quality. Laying that out in black and white will make a productive conversation far more likely than arguing which is better: cheap or good.

Question 4: “How are we defining success?”

If you’re on the same page with goals and priorities, but still at a loggerhead, consider that you may have conflicting definitions of success. Ask your opponent(s) to describe to you what their vision of a successful outcome would be. Get as many details as you can – both measurable and qualitative outcomes are valuable to hear. You may discover some core areas of disagreement that can be teased out once a clear picture of the ideal future has been painted. Maybe they’re imagining a utopia that doesn’t look quite so sunny to you. In that case, it’s no wonder you disagree on how to get there. But if you can understand how an ideal outcome looks to them, you’re better equipped to negotiate a win-win approach.

It may turn out that your teammate is motivated by accolades – industry awards or just a nod from the boss – while you’re more focused on bringing your project in under budget. Articulating these underlying (and often unconscious) assumptions puts you in a much better position to succeed on everyone’s terms.

Articulating these underlying (and often unconscious) assumptions puts you in a much better position to succeed on everyone’s terms.

Question 5: “What would you do in my place?”

In situations where you feel like the other party simply doesn’t respect or appreciate your perspective, try this bit of conversational judo courtesy of my friend Brooke Allen:

Step 1. Describe the problem to the person on the other side.
Step 2. Ask, “What would you do if you were me?”
Step 3. Shut up—anything you say next will weaken your stance.

It’s a brilliant way to hack empathy into your conversations – or, failing that, to get crystal clear on who’s sympathetic to your priorities and who isn’t.

More Questions

It happens sometimes: You coax, nudge, and cajole your teammates to the best of your ability, and you still haven’t located the root of your conflict. So where do you go from here? Here are a few things that have worked for me:

“What’s important about that?” is a magic question, when you’re digging into whys and purpose. Use it liberally. It can work wonders as a supplementary question for identifying goals, priorities and definitions of success – or really, anytime you’re trying to understand what matters most. If you find yourself faced with surface-level answers, throw it at ‘em and see what happens.

Don’t be afraid to be the dumbest person in the room. Loosen your hold on what you think you know, and ask questions that may seem to have obvious answers. You may want to use some disarming language: “At the risk of asking a stupid question, can someone tell me why we’re adding this feature?” “Do we have any leeway with this logo?” “What is essential to launch on the projected launch date?” Restating the fundamentals can have a galvanizing effect on your sense of purpose.

“What else?” can draw out unexpected factors that might otherwise hide behind more obvious ones.

Allow space for silence – even the uncomfortable kind. Deep thinking takes time.

“How would our customers want us to answer this question?” can pull you out of navel-gazing ruts and into creative, empathy mode.

Once you’ve dug down to the roots of your disagreement, finding a mutually satisfying resolution is far more likely – and odds are, it’ll come quickly.

How about you?

How do you settle disagreements with work colleagues?

More insights on: Collaboration

Lauren Bacon

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Lauren is a seasoned tech entrepreneur, author, and business coach who asks a lot of questions – and enjoys inspiring curiosity in others. She welcomes inquiries, thought experiments and conversation on Twitter at @laurenbacon.
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