When people ask how they can get better at managing difficult conversations, disagreements and conflict, I always tell them what’s worked best for me over the years: being surrounded by people who actively disagree with me.
Our ability to tolerate disagreement is learned in intimate circles of friends and family who push our buttons and tell us what we don't want to hear, but they also care about us.
Although you can't choose how your parents raised you, you can choose your friends.
I've realised that most of my friends who disagree with me fall into three categories.
Those with an evolutionary disagreement style master the art of taking your initial idea, thought or problem, and evolving it into something totally different without generating friction or opposition. For this, you need to be a great storyteller and pretty good at understanding human emotions. These people have a gentle and engaging style that can be an incredible gift in messy situations.
People with stop-you-in-your-tracks disagreement style listen to you carefully and then ask the killer question that opens up all of heaven and hell for you. Most of the time, you can barely see their questions coming in the middle of the conversation. They always surprise you with their sharp approach creating equal pain and joy and giving you no option but to face reality. They are great at putting you on the right track.
And then you have the ones who dominate the no-crap-allowed disagreement style with great humour, audacity and intelligence. Most of my female friends fall into this category. When they need to call you out, they do. Sometimes it hurts, but it’s always necessary, and the most amazing thing is that they don't feel inclined to sugar-coat it!
Friendship is an excellent arena for learning to give and receive disagreement. A word of caution: disagreement in friendships works because it’s a space where we know the other person cares about us. We feel safe.
Disagreement requires more emotional than intellectual work (and yet when facing disagreement, we spend more time thinking about what we will say than how we or the other person feels about it).
Gandhi and Mandela used non-violent resistance (NVR) to change political regimes, and it was later adopted by Haim Omer, the founder of the non-violent resistance approach to family therapy to deal with children displaying violent and aggressive behaviour at home and school.
One of the first steps in any NVR intervention is establishing a connection with the child by being fully present. The intention here is not to change the child with our presence but rather to change how the child sees us.
To disagree with others without falling apart, we need to establish a good connection and a space to show that we care. In the workplace, you can do this through the quality of your presence and your listening quality.
More presence and less talking is an excellent way of showing how much you care.