Shall we agree to disagree?

By Sally Evans


There is no doubt at all that conflict is important in any relationship whether that is at home or at work. But what really matters is not the amount of conflict that you have but the quality of that conflict.

Good conflicts can lead to higher levels of trust and in work can lead to greater team cohesion and improved performance.

Conflicts at home and work often seem very different but actually, they have similar roots and very similar remedies. In any relationship, conflict will be inevitable, but it is not unsolvable.

In every relationship whether at home or at work, we may disagree sometimes about really big decisions like whether to move to a new house or where to educate the children. But we will also disagree about much smaller issues such as what time to meet, or what to buy at the shops.

The goal in any relationship is to have the right kind of conflict and to do that we need to recognise first what we are actually arguing about. It is often not what we think we are arguing about at all!

But confronting any type of conflict can be really uncomfortable. Many people often say to me that learning how to conflict effectively is something they would like to learn to do better.

But how often have we shied away from telling our friends they have food in their teeth or hesitated to tell someone that you disagree with their point of view? We don't want to hurt other peoples feelings and often we don't want to damage the relationship. Sometimes we don't conflict purely because we just want to be liked and we don't want to be judged by others.

When thinking about the conflict it sometimes helps to consider what type of conflict is happening. Is it a conflict over a task? Is it actually conflict about the relationship and the fact that you both have different personalities, preferences, assumptions or behaviours. Or maybe the conflict is about status? Sometimes conflict can easily occur in work when people are unclear about their roles and what they are responsible for.

When thinking of conflict, it's important to consider something called the Ladder of Inference. It is the first step to untangling any elements of messy conflict and helping us come back to the core of what the conflict is all about.

Many of our conflicts will come from making wrong assumptions about the other person's behaviour. Sometimes it really helps to pause and consider the situation from their perspective but not just assume their perspective actually ask for their perspective. 

At the bottom of your ladder will be your specific observations that you are making about the other person's behaviour. As they've been behaving in a way that you are uncomfortable with you will make a series of assumptions. For example, that they are wasteful or they don't care or they never meet deadlines or they always do this just to annoy you. 

Then you may judge the other person and they will almost certainly perceive that. Spending time asking the other person what is behind the behaviour can be really helpful to get a better understanding of why they are behaving in a particular way. 

They may not be being wasteful at all. They may be worried about scarcity, for example. What we need to do is come down our ladder of inference to share our observations and assumptions and ask the other person to do the same about what is going on for them.

Types of conflict

Task conflict is when we disagree about a problem, a solution or a decision and it can be necessary and productive to have such discussions.

Relationship conflict is when we disagree based on our personal differences or values. This will often lead to unnecessary and destructive behaviours in both parties. However, in healthy partnerships and really productive teams, we're able to have task conflict regularly but not have the relationship conflict. But all too often these two things get blurred.

The key is in taking the time to pause and think about how you can resolve the task conflict without getting personal!

Navigating relationship conflict is rarely simple at work. Our team won't always be full of people that we really enjoy being with. Sometimes you might not even like the other person and conflicts can get messy when you're working with somebody senior or a peer who is difficult to work with.

But it can be counterproductive if we don't try to see things from other peoples points of view. In relationship conflict it helps to consider your own self-awareness and whether your behaviour is contributing to the situation?

Or is the difference regarding the behaviours down to your different personality preferences? Are you really great at meeting deadlines and the other person less so? Do you like to plan everything out and the other person prefers to be spontaneous and enjoy last-minute pressure?

Spending time discussing your differences can be helpful in terms of understanding their perspective and them understanding yours. Rather than you both making assumptions about one person being more demanding or controlling and the other person being too flaky or disruptive for example!

Status conflict is different again. This is where there may be confusion in work regarding your roles, your objectives and who and how everyone should be contributing. Sometimes this can be about clashes of values or personalities but sometimes it can simply be that there needs to be more clarity in communication over team roles and objectives. 

Taking the time to sit down and have a conversation about the differences takes time, takes patience but will often be worth it.

You may have had a disagreement with a colleague escalate into a conflict. It may have started small but it can have big consequences so thinking about whether you are walking up or down your ladder of inference and sharing your assumptions is crucial to improving your relationships whether at home or at work

When somebody disappoints you it may not be because of their actions. It is usually because of a clash between their actions and your expectations of how a situation was going to unfold.

Understanding their personality preference can help you rethink your assumptions and conclusions and therefore adjust your expectations accordingly!

In a relationship conflict, the key to making really good progress is to really improve your self-awareness and your awareness of others. To improve your communication it also helps to understand how your own cultural values and your own personality traits differ from other people and observe the impact that this has on others.

You're not going to be able to fix other peoples personality differences. Our personalities are who we are and what we bring to the table. But we can seek to understand and recognise how our personality difference may influence our interactions with others and the relationships that we have.

When we pause long enough to consider the conflict and reflect on what may be causing it and even to be brave and ask questions of the other person to explore the situation better, we are really bringing quality conflict onto the table and helping improve our relationships

So, in summary, I would say that we don't have to agree to disagree!

We just have to agree to disagree respectfully. In all of our social relationships, it takes effort to make them work and real harmony does not come from a combination of identical values and behaviours. 

The diversity that we have at home and at work can be optimised if we just choose to not act on our assumptions.

In homes and in work cultures that deal with conflict effectively, people are not afraid to bring their problems to the table. If we can agree on a problem, we have a better opportunity at finding a solution that works for everyone.

And even if you don't find the perfect solution you have at least strengthened your ability to build a consensus around the problem and to work better in your relationships, your partnerships and your teams.

Good luck!

Sally Evans

Organisational Pyschologist / Founder of LifeBuddy