A long time ago a boss told me I had an attitude problem.
This so-called attitude problem was related to my apparent inability to say what he instructed me to say at staff meetings.
That boss had a particular way of nudging everybody. He would summon us one by one before any important meeting and instruct us on how to vote and whether or not to agree to specific proposals. Needless to say, this didn’t go down well with me.
That experience made me a ferocious and argumentative dissenter. If I was going to be cancelled for my opinions, I’d better transform them into safe and factual arguments that nobody could deny.
As you can imagine, that didn’t go down well either.
It turned out that I was good at producing arguments and engaging in intellectual battle, but the others resented this and collaboration became more difficult.
I was torn between speaking up, saying my truth and arguing for justice or fairness, and remaining silent to protect my standing, the status quo or my own interests.
I see this a lot. I talk to many passionate and argumentative contrarians who experience a similar dilemma and see shutting up as the only alternative.
As a client recently told me, it feels like giving up.
When we argue ineffectively or enter into a confrontation we run the risk of ruining our personal relations with people that matter to us. We may even become cynical and start thinking that nothing is going to change, that things are just the way they are and we must resign ourselves to that.
We might consider changing jobs, as I did, in an effort to find people who think like us so we don’t have to face the difficulties of disagreeing.
There is some value in that kind of thinking. Life is easier when we live in a bubble.
Life is easier if I only talk to my Brexiteer friends, people like me, rather than my Remain colleagues at work.
It’s also easier to only hang out with colleagues in the tech sector, people like me.
And definitely more convenient to only have friends with a similar economic and social background so we can do the same stuff together.
I hear you agree.
All these choices make our lives easier but – and I hope you agree with me here too – it makes life a bit boring and sometimes unremarkably unfulfilling.
Any learning, innovation or improvement in business and in life includes friction, disagreement, curiosity, tension and questioning.
The problem is not that disagreement is hard – the problem is that we make it a hard choice when we let it separate us from others.
Our sense of belonging in these cases is damaged and so we become afraid to disagree.
Dictatorships build their oppressive systems by keeping people quiet, toxic environments punish those who speak up and unethical behaviour spread when people are reluctant to denounce.
Because they capitalise on our fear of being left out.
I think we can do better.
And I think there are other choices.
We can learn to disagree and stay connected with the people in front of us.
We can disagree and understand (but not share) the other person’s point of view.
We can disagree and learn about somebody else’s story and about what matters to them.
We can disagree but hold our disagreement lightly, not tightly.
We can disagree and be ready to agree on other matters.
We can disagree without trying to elevate our status.
We can disagree and not claim the place of the smartest person in the room.
We can disagree in order to build something better.
We can disagree and build trust.
Would that way of disagreeing create a change in your life, your team or your work?
What do you want to say but don’t know how?
What are you saying that’s creating resistance and opposition?
What if you could disagree and dissent and still experience connection?
How would this impact your life and work?
If you’re ready, I am.