The Emotionally Intelligent Way to Resolve Disagreements Faster
Unpacking the counterintuitive psychology behind conflict resolution.
- Josh Davis
- Hitendra Wadhwa
Photo from Francois Boudrias/iStock.
Imagine you run a tech startup. Cash is tight, but you can’t afford to enter the market with a product that doesn’t live up to its promises. And right now, it’s clear that your engineers aren’t focusing enough on the user-experience issues. Your senior engineer just won’t play along, though. You and she can’t seem to agree on what matters. She wants to do an early launch so the engineers can test features and improve them before fine-tuning the UX, arguing that other software companies, including major tech giants like Apple and Google, launch beta versions all the time. She suggests that you’re just burning cash and wasting time, that you don’t understand how tech companies work and need to trust her on this.
But you don’t. You’re worried about the brand; what if first-time users give you just one chance, hate the UX, and never return? If your launch product isn’t user-friendly, your whole business could be destroyed. Weeks go by and your disagreement with the senior engineer is going nowhere. You’ve tried bringing evidence and examples to prove to her that she’s wrong, and she’s done the same to you. The arguments have started to get heated, she’s getting concerned about your leadership, and you’re getting concerned about her commitment.
What should you do? What you should’ve done much earlier: Find something—anything—to agree on, as long as it’s meaningful.
Agree on Something (Other Than the Solution)
It’s natural during conflicts to feel you have to prove that you’re right, but this only escalates things. One party may give in, but it will be at the expense of wasted time, energy, and morale. However, a surprising thing happens when you take the opposite approach. By finding some common ground as soon as you detect the first signs of tension or conflict, you can start working quickly toward a mutually agreeable solution.
There’s always something true in the other party’s thinking. It may be their intention, premises, logic, concerns, or the factors they’re weighing. For example, you might agree with your senior engineer’s concerns and say to her, “I agree. It would make a lot of sense to get real user testing at this stage on our basic features before we put a lot more energy into other things. Let’s find a way to do that without a public launch. I need to also make sure we protect the brand experience.”
Alternatively, you might agree with her premises and say, “You make a great point that the tech giants do a lot of this kind of testing, and it’s hugely beneficial to getting the product features right. We should follow their lead. I think we won’t get the chance to learn about those features unless users have a simple and positive experience. That’s something else great companies do. What will it take for us to get to that point before we put our product out there?”
Or you may even seek a deeper truth and say, “I appreciate how much you want this product and this company to be amazing. I share that optimism and enthusiasm. That’s why I think we have so much potential here. Let’s think about where we’re both trying to get to.”
When you find a way to agree with something other than the solution to the problem you’re debating, you can shift the frame of the conversation to include a factor you both see as true and relevant. That makes it easier for the other person to lay down their arms and stop fighting. Instead, they start listening.
The Psychology of Agreeing
This approach creates what psychologists call “shared reality” and “procedural justice.” Shared reality is what happens when others see the world as you do and then find a way to let you know. It’s very unsettling when others don’t share your understanding of reality. When they do, however, it puts people on the same team and opens them up to collaboration. Procedural justice is about getting a fair hearing. It’s when people can ask themselves, “Did I get a chance to actually be heard?” and answer in the affirmative. We’re far more likely to accept an outcome if we feel like we’ve been listened to and understood. Not only does finding something to agree on fulfill both of these psychological needs, but research also suggests that people tend to automatically reciprocate. So when you agree, your opponent is more likely to find something else to agree with you about in turn.
Wait, though: What if agreeing makes you look like a pushover? What if the other person really is to blame for something—will you be letting them get away with it? And if you give a little ground, won’t they just take more? These are all important concerns. But the fact is that they remain liabilities whether or not you find something in their argument to agree with; acknowledging common ground doesn’t totally invalidate your argument. You can agree and remain very strong about what matters to you. You can agree and still address how you came to be in the situation. And you can agree and stand your ground. Having created the basis for shared reality, procedural justice, and reciprocity, you’re less likely to meet resistance for standing up for your own needs in these ways.
So when you find yourself locked in disagreement, the emotionally intelligent thing to do is to agree—not necessarily with the other party’s conclusions or proposed solution, but with some truth in what they believe. It could be their goals, intentions, concerns, emotions, or something bigger-picture that you share. It has the surprising and counterintuitive effect of disarming people, so you can move past disagreement and on to collaboration.
There’s one more, often unexpected result of this approach. Agreeing tends to bring out the best in other people, but it can also bring out the best in you. By pushing yourself to find common ground, you can shift your own thinking in a more collaborative direction, too. A little more flexibility and understanding–on all sides–is surely a good thing.
Josh Davis, PhD, is the author of the international best-seller Two Awesome Hours. He is faculty and senior director of research at the Institute for Personal Leadership, and he teaches “The Art of Public Speaking” at the NLP Center of New York.
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That we think so well of untrained intuition is because (without realising it) we are the inheritors of what can be summed up as a Romantic view of emotions. Starting in Europe in the 18th century and spreading widely and powerfully ever since, Romanticism is a movement of ideas that has been deeply committed to letting our emotions play a large and untampered role in our lives. Instead of nuancing or educating them (as earlier, Classical theories recommended), Romanticism has suggested that we learn to surrender to emotions with confidence and trust that they have much to teach us in their raw, untrammelled forms. If we feel joyful we shouldn’t necessarily try to analyse why. Reason can harm or distort feeling. If we are sad, we shouldn’t seek to moderate our passions. Anger should be vented, not bottled up; you should tell other people how you feel, without worrying about the consequences of emotional honesty. When choosing whom to love, you should be guided by instinct; it is the best way to choose a partner. Being true to feelings is, Romanticism insists, always a virtue.
Romanticism was a deeply well-intentioned movement, but it has had some extremely tricky consequences, because attempting to navigate our emotional lives by intuition alone has to it some of the recklessness of trying to land a plane or perform a surgical operation without training. Our emotions, if left unexamined and unschooled, are liable to lead us into some profoundly counter-productive situations in regard to our love choices, our careers, our friendships and the management of our own moods.
The task before us is therefore how we might acquire a set of emotional skills that could reliably contribute to a capacity for ‘emotional intelligence’. The term sounds odd. We are used to referring to intelligence without necessarily unpicking the many varieties of it a person might possess – and therefore do not tend to highlight the value of a very distinctive sort of intelligence which currently does not enjoy the prestige it should. Every sort of intelligence signals an ability to navigate well around a particular set of challenges: mathematical, linguistic, technical, commercial and so on… When we say that someone is clever but add that they have made a mess of their personal lives; or that they have acquired an astonishing amount of money but are very tricky to work with, we are pointing to a deficit in what deserves to be called emotional intelligence.
Emotional intelligence is the quality that enables us to negotiate with patience, insight and temperance the central problems in our relationships with others and with ourselves. It shows up around partnerships in a sensitivity to the moods of others, in a readiness to grasp what may be going on for them beyond the surface and to enter imaginatively into their point of view. It shows up in regard to ourselves when it comes to dealing with anger, envy, anxiety and professional confusion. And emotional intelligence is what distinguishes those who are crushed by failure from those who know how to greet the troubles of existence with a melancholy and at points darkly humorous resilience.
At various points in the past, there have been forces at work which hoped to teach us emotional skills in systematic ways. They didn’t always do the job ideally well – but they did keep the general idea on the agenda. It is noteworthy that none of these forces are currently very powerful in our lives today.
The first of these forces was religion. At their best religions sought to retrain, and improve, the quality of our customary emotional responses. In his Second Letter to the Corinthians, St Paul (the decisive figure in the development of all the Christian churches) sought to teach people to be ‘Slow to anger and quick to forgive’. The project was based on the wise assumption that better emotions are by nature highly teachable and that we are, of course, usually swift to fury and extremely stubborn about forgiving. Yet St Paul knew there might be another way – and believed that a retraining programme could belong to one of the central ambitions of his new religion. Therefore, for centuries, week by week, congregations were asked to reflect very seriously on their own failings to be humble rather than proud; to feel pity and tenderness in directions they normally wouldn’t consider and to refocus feelings of admiration away from worldly success and towards sacrifice and renunciation.
The point isn’t to insist that churches were always successful at or ideally focused on emotional education – but to highlight that they were peculiarly and inspiringly devoted to trying. The capacity for churches to keep up this project has now badly withered. Religion may still be a major force in the world but it suffers from the insurmountable drawback that it is perceived as being built upon incredible suppositions; it simply feels too strange to a great many sensible people to believe that a cosmic deity might be in control of the destiny of human beings and yet, for reasons we are not equipped to fully comprehend, would allow the world to roll on in endless, grotesque suffering. However nice some aspects of its emotional education programme might be, religion cannot now be a force suited to conveying it.
When religion first declined in the West in the 19th century, a widespread assumption was that universities could take up some of the slack. Culture could replace scripture. But these hopes too have been conclusively betrayed. A range of academic subjects – philosophy, history, literature – are in principle highly connected to the task of educating our emotional lives; they capture the course of human experience in all its complexities – and the leading universities have often been hugely well resourced and housed in majestic settings. From the outside they have looked like places that would have the authority and the opportunity to help individuals and even whole societies becomes emotionally wise. But, this grand promise has been tragically undercut (or, more bluntly, betrayed) by an academic obsession with abstraction and obscurity. If an individual turned up at one of the great universities frankly asking for help, they would be regarded as deranged and forcibly removed.
A similar betrayal has happened around art museums. Here too the hope was that these could take over some of the tasks of religion: that museums could become our new cathedrals. The great galleries of the world may sometimes look the part, but close up they harbour no comparable ambitions to guide and elevate us. Cathedrals were intended to provide very specific courses in emotional education and guidance, taking us in ordered stages through a process of training leading to a specific and admired conclusion. No such ambitions attend galleries. One would be equally unwise to show up in sorrow at a museum asking for help in knowing how to live and die well.
The idea of emotional education therefore remains at once deeply relevant and widely neglected. The challenge before us is to break down emotional intelligence into a range of skills, a curriculum of emotional skills, that are at work in wise and temperate lives. We should be ready to embark on a systematic educational programme in an area that has for too long, unfairly and painfully, seemed like a realm of intuition and luck.