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How to Work Together When You Don’t Agree

When it comes to what is a comfortable indoor temperature, I am frequently in a different hemisphere than my family. On visits, debates are almost guaranteed. The surprising thing is that although spirited and sometimes a little animated, they are actually civil. And we enjoy our time together even if it means sometimes, some of us are covered in blankets. Differences in society and at work are increasingly common. Evidence suggests that leaders spend more than four hours a week dealing with conflict on average. But this kind of healthy disagreement is rare. So how can we learn to work together with people that have different values or hold different opinions from us? Here are four strategies for staying civil on topics more sensitive and important than the temperature.

The cost of unproductive conflict

The distinction between productive and unproductive conflict lies in the importance of the issue and the amount of energy you put into it.

  • Productive conflict is the open exchange of conflicting or differing ideas. Both parties involved feel equally heard, respected, and unafraid to voice dissenting opinions to reach a mutually comfortable resolution. Even though conflict may be uncomfortable, it is productive to have ideas challenged so we can learn and grow.

  • Non-productive conflict is an exchange of conflicting or differing ideas. People do not feel equally heard or respected and are afraid to voice dissenting opinions. Non-productive conflict arises when the real issues are not discussed, and attention is placed on trivial matters resulting in the conflict escalating.

According to a survey of 5,000 full-time employees in nine countries, 85% of employees deal with conflict regularly at work. The estimated impact of non-productive conflict in America is well over $1.5 billion annually, not to mention the emotional and psychological costs on the workforce. Beyond employee productivity and well-being, a study of 2195 employees found that one in ten cases of conflict results in employee turnover. Of course, it is natural to want to minimize workplace conflict.

4 Strategies for staying civil

Silence is expensive, and there is value in opposing opinions. Some of your best advice will likely come from those that see things differently. Don’t miss out on that because of your need to be right or avoid conflict. Here are four strategies for staying civil.

Strategy #1: Listen and Suspend Judgement

Becoming curious and listening without judgment allows you to discover mutual benefits. Listening leaves the other person feeling valued, affirmed, and connected emotionally with you. Being heard creates safety in the relationship and is foundational to trust. Listening eases tensions and makes productive conflict work where resentment exists. Although being listened to is not commonly experienced in the workforce, listening is a leadership habit that can be developed with practice.

One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say. Bryant McGill

Leaders are under pressure, and listening without judgment is not likely to happen in a rushed environment. The key is not to try and force a conversation into an arbitrarily scheduled time frame or the five minutes on your way to your next meeting. Allow the option to reschedule additional time as appropriate.

It is easy not to be aware that you are sending unintended signals. Put your technology on mute. Get curious about what they are saying and their emotions. This is not the time to multitask. Be natural and use verbal and nonverbal cues such as nodding your head or saying yes to let them know you are engaged.

Before sharing your thoughts and ideas, paraphrase key points. Like when playing catch with a ball. When the conversation is tossed to you, that is the time to put what you heard into your own words and use that to make sure you hear the key points correctly. Before taking the conversation in a different direction. Just simply toss the ball back.

Strategy #2: Be Authentic and Vulnerable

Being open and candid demonstrates caring and respect, creating safety within the relationship for uncomfortable conversations. Regardless of leadership level or amount of experience, all leaders struggle with the tension of being vulnerable or not.

In difficult conversations, others want to know you care. But concerns about managing perceptions often derail leaders from showing vulnerability in the workplace. And when leaders are guarded in difficult conversations, it promotes distrust.

“People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care” Theodore Roosevelt

Although leaders are expected to convey an image of competence, confidence, and power, followers already know you are not perfect. Being vulnerable as a leader in difficult conversations requires courage. Vulnerability involves the willingness to take risks that might end in failure or create the best of what might be in the organization.

The following short video from Simon Sinek expands on the tension leaders face and how to show vulnerability in the workplace as a leader.

Keep the conversation genuine, especially if it involves your mistakes. This does not mean sharing personal secrets. Being authentic pertains to both the logical rationale aspects of the conversation as well as your feelings about the other person and the conversation. This does not mean sharing deep personal secrets. It means metaphorically inviting the other person inside your house rather than making them stand outside talking from behind your screen door of image management.

Strategy #3: Promote Trust-Based Relationships

Trust unlocks the full potential of any relationship and business. When conflicts occur, it is essential to demonstrate a concern for integrating others' interests. Trust is built when everyone involved leaves a disagreement without negative feelings.

Demonstrating a high degree of credibility, reliability, intimacy, and humility are attributes of establishing trustworthiness in relationships.

  • Credibility is the most frequently achieved attribute of trustworthiness. It has rational and emotional aspects related to an individual's expertise and personal presence.

  • Reliability is based on the frequency of interactions with someone and the consistency of expected behavior.

  • Intimacy requires a personal willingness to have a courageous conversation. This is one of the key differentiating attributes of trustworthiness.

  • Humility relates to the amount of focus placed on oneself versus the emphasis placed on the other person. A high degree of self-orientation creates significant distrust from others.

The following acrostic, created provides a helpful way to remember how to build and restore trust:

T – Transparency

R – Relationship

U – Understanding

S – Shared Success

T – Testing Assumptions

Strategy #4: Have a Plan

Creating productive conflict requires psychological safety in the relationship and a healthy workplace culture dedicated to the workforce. Have a plan for how you are going to approach conflict in your workplace. Your plan should include answers to what, when, where, how, and why specific to the situation and those involved.

Encourage everyone to take ownership in resolving non-productive workplace conflicts. Create a culture of accountability for productive conflict that starts with your leadership. As Gandhi said, "be the change you wish to see in the world." Provide training for your leaders and employees on how to deal with workplace conflict. Training on creating productive conflict and communication should go beyond initial onboarding training for new employees.

The next time you start feeling the temperature of the conversation rising, remember avoiding conflict takes time and energy. Avoiding conflict will only make matters worse for you, those involved, and the impact on your company. Commit and act on these four strategies. I might be wrong, but I think you will like the results.


Behfar, K. J., Peterson, R. S., Mannix, E. A., & Trochim, W. M. K. (2008). The critical role of conflict resolution in teams: A close look at the links between conflict type, conflict management strategies, and team outcomes. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93(1), 170-188.

Cabrera, A., & Unruh, G. (2012). Being global: How to think, act, and lead in a transformed world. Harvard Business Review Press.

Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development. (2015). Getting under the skin of workplace conflict: Tracing the experiences of employees.

Fukuyama, F. (1995). Trust: The social virtues and the creation of prosperity. Free Press.

Glaser, J. (2014). Conversational Intelligence: How great leaders build trust and get extraordinary results. New York: Bibliomotion, Inc.

Hayes, J. (2008). Workplace conflict and how businesses can harness it to thrive. CPP Global Human Capital Report.

ICF. (2020). 2020 ICF global coaching study: Executive summary. International Coaching Federation.

Maister, D. H., Green, C. H., & Galford, R. M. (2000). The trusted advisor. New York: Free Press.

SHRM. (2021). Managing workplace conflict. Toolkits.

The Myers-Briggs Company. (2022). Conflict at work: A research report.


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About Dr. Jeff Doolittle

He is the founder of Organizational Talent Consulting in Grand Rapids, MI, and Program Director of online graduate and continuing business education at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, IL. Executive leaders who work with Jeff describe him as thoughtful, decisive, intelligent, and collaborative. Jeff is a business executive with over twenty years of talent development and organizational strategy experience working with C-suite leaders in Fortune 100, Forbes top 25 private, for-profit, non-profit, and global companies in many industries.

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