Understanding Doesn’t Have to = Agreement

Have you ever been in a conversation with someone on a topic in which you obviously don’t agree?  How does that usually go?  In my experience it goes a couple of different ways:

  1. You keep hammering each other on your same talking points hoping to sway the other’s stance;
  2. It escalates into an argument;
  3. It leads to gridlock in cases where a decision needs to be made;
  4. You walk away drained and frustrated;
  5. All of the above.

photo by Laenulfean via PhotoRee


At least, this is how it used to go for me, that is until I learned a valuable lesson.  One that has improved my professional success in leaps and bounds.  These conversations don’t need to be about agreement or consensus building, at least not most of the time, they should be focused on understanding.  Typically we have strong personal feelings that our stance on a topic is right.  Especially if we have done considerable research or have a background in the topic.  What we don’t always take into consideration is that the other party may have done the same and feels the just as strongly about their stance.  No better example exists, than in the U.S. government’s political system where conflicting ideals lead to gridlock and the impacts are very real:

  • Little to no progress
  • A lack of comprehensive, well thought out solutions
  • Resources wasted

This eventually leads to negative impacts on constituents and customers.  In an organizational dynamic, when we get all wrapped up on forcing agreement,we lose sight of why we are there.  To get work done and service our customers!

So how do we overcome this?  The first step is to realize that understanding doesn’t necessarily lead to agreement.  Most people, by nature, just want to feel like they are understood and what we mistake as forcing agreement is usually a reaction to someone not feeling like the other party is taking the time to understand them.  If we spent more time taking a step back and actively listening to the other side it takes these conversations down a different path.  One that opens the door, not necessarily to agreement, but to cooperation and problem solving.  Once we get over the mental block that no one understands us we become much more productive when team solutioning is required.   To open this door many times one of the individuals, not both, have to take the risk of opening up and taking a stance of understanding.  So how do you do this?

  • Be an active listener– Don’t just spend the time that the other side is speaking to formulate your rebuttal.  Listen to what they are saying and show that you heard them.
  • Realize that there is more than one way to see something – whether or not we want to accept it, life experiences force us to see things through different filters, keeping this in mind helps make that connection.
  • Understand that the discussion isn’t personal – When someone sees something differently than we do our natural response is to take offense.  We see this disagreement as an attack on our own views.  When you feel this coming on take a deep breath and reconsider bullet 2.
  • Keep the ultimate impact in sight – In business, when we are working to solve a problem we are ultimately working to improve our customer’s experience.  Keeping this in mind helps us avoid the kind of gridlock that lessens this experience and harms our employer’s reputation.

This may not work with all individuals and some will try to take advantage of this approach, but the more you take this approach in your career, the more you brand yourself as a thoughtful team player/leader.  These are the types of people that others want to work with.  Think about it.  Would you rather work with someone who doesn’t agree with you but respects you enough to understand your stance.  Or fights you tooth and nail to agree with them? And how are you more likely to come to a more comprehensive solution that considers all the angels?  Just keep in mind that understanding doesn’t necessarily lead to agreement, but it does open the door for cooperation and problem solving.

About the author: Heath

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