Pressure-packed and activity-filled accurately describes work performed in public schools. Differing opinions, conflicting preferences, and varying perspectives abound. Of course, when committed people hold different viewpoints and competing ideas, disagreements naturally arise.
Yet, disagreements do not have to be destructive. In fact, they can be productive ways to test and hone latest ideas, build understanding of various perspectives, and identify promising new strategies and approaches. The key is to approach and engage in disagreements in ways that minimize their personal nature and limit their damage to relationships while building understanding and finding common ground. Here are eight guidelines to help us navigate such conflicts:
First, we need to come to the conversation with curiosity, openness, and humility. We need to leave space for the other person to feel safe and respected. Focusing on understanding and learning rather than winning or convincing others that we’re correct benefits everyone. Forcing someone to agree with us never works. The best outcome is increased understanding while protecting the freedom for everyone to make their own decision.
Second, if we simply desire to vent or impose our perspective, our best choice is to skip the conversation. When people feel threatened and become defensive, an unproductive conversation results, possibly sacrificing our relationship. A better choice is to give the other person space to make their own decision considering the conversation. It’s the only way convincing really works.
Third, we cannot control the behaviors of others. However, the more we know about how the other person behaves in conflict the better we can prepare for a productive conversation. Is the other person likely to listen? Will they remain respectful? Or must they have the last word? Knowing their tendencies in advance helps us to not take their responses personally and helps us avoid becoming emotionally caught up in an argument.
Fourth, we can avoid “put downs,” “put offs,” and “push aways.” We need to refrain from statements that imply what the other person should or shouldn’t do, or generalizing and invoking stereotypes. Such language tends to shut down the dialogue we seek and can feel disrespectful. Remember: People will recall how we made them feel long after they forget the substance of the disagreement.
Fifth, we can share the experience that led to our perspective. Our perspective is not necessarily fact. Our experience is the story behind how we came to our perspective. To avoid confusion, we might say, “I think,” “My view,” or “I believe” to remain clear that we’re sharing our perspective, not stating immutable facts.
Sixth, we need to be open to other perspectives. The other person may have a dissimilar experience. We can invite further information with statements, such as: “Tell me more.” Or “Why do you think that is so?” Just because someone does not share our perspective doesn’t mean they’re unintelligent, lack character, or a bad person.
Seventh, we must be willing to suspend the conversation when it becomes personal or disrespectful. We might say, “I need some time to think about what you have said. Let’s get back together when I’ve had some time to reflect.” We also need to avoid pushing if the topic is sensitive or elicits an emotional response from the other person.
Eighth, throughout the conversation, we can seek ways to build common ground, create momentum, and find solutions with which we both can agree. Listening to find the best ideas and options keeps us open and ready to find agreement rather than trying to win at all costs.
We may not always convince the other person or reach agreement. However, we can always treat the experience as an opportunity to learn and better understand the experiences and perspectives of others. Meanwhile, this discerning strategy informs our thinking and builds our insight. Throughout the experience, we’ll have maintained or even strengthened our relationship with them despite areas of disagreement.