How to Defuse a Dispute

Five strategies for managing disagreements

Posted Mar 01, 2016

Recently a client conducted a small group session using a ShadowBox scenario my colleagues and I had developed and bumped into a dilemma. For the first decision point, six people picked one option and the other two picked a different option. What do you do when the group doesn’t neatly line up? My client explained how the majority, the six group members, put pressure on the other two to change their minds, but that didn’t go over very well. So afterward, she called me for advice. 

A typical approach is to stifle the disagreement by trying to convince the outliers through majority rules, using authority, using threats, coercion, and so forth. That’s what my client’s group had done. If this sounds heavy-handed, it’s the way lots of democracies work: the powerful group gets to impose its will on the weak, within bounds. (Athenian democracy didn’t work that way — the majority was expected to find a compromise, as noted by Paul Woodruff in First Democracy.)  But majority rule didn’t work out well for my client. As is often the case, it created resentment and weakened the harmony of the group.

What can we do when we encounter an interpersonal disagreement, in a group or even face-to-face with another person? Here are a few strategies. This list is not exhaustive, just a survey of some possibilities.

The five strategies all depend on perspective-taking — being able to see the dispute from the vantage point of the other side.

One: Be curious. In my conversation with my client, I suggested that next time she use a different strategy: to be curious. What were the reasons given by the two dissenters? Why did they care about their positions? Maybe they can convince the majority. (Remember how Henry Fonda did in 12 Angry Men to convince the other 11 jurors.) Or maybe if the majority shares its reasons in a careful way, the minority members may voluntarily change their position. We’ve all encountered people who ask for our reasons just to attack them. “I just want to learn why you are taking that position,” they’ll say, and once you explain they pounce on you. That sort of dialogue isn’t very constructive. This strategy is to take dissenters seriously and treat them with respect. We need to ask questions whose answers we don’t already know.

Two: Repair Common Ground. A lot of the disagreements I see aren’t substantive, but are caused by confusion. Very often people use the same terms to mean different things. The argument can become very heated, but the protagonists are talking past each other. In a previous piece about overcoming confusion, I described a conflict in which a friend was hired by a hospital to create a safety culture, only to find that the administrators didn’t give her the backing they promised. She felt betrayed. However, her ideas of a safety culture were very different than those of the administrators. They each used the term “safety culture,” but with different expectations.  Terms like “safety culture” are Common Ground landmines, just waiting to be tripped. The strategy here is first to be alert to these landmines. If the disagreement hinges on this type of misunderstanding it can be defused. Sometimes we can avoid a Common Ground landmine by pinning down our terms, not with words, and certainly not with metrics, but with examples so that each party has a more concrete image of what is expected.

Three: Sort out knowledge differences. Sometimes one party knows something that the other side doesn’t. One party may be laboring under constraints and restrictions that the others aren’t aware of. By listening carefully, we might be able to defuse disagreements by making information available. We can ask ourselves, “Is there something the others don’t know? Or are they assuming I know something of which I am ignorant?”

Four: Appreciate motivation differences. Rivals in a dispute may have some overlapping goals, but certainly will have a lot of separate goals. They’re never going to line up the same way, but they can gain a deeper understanding of differences in their priorities. Sometimes people won’t be candid about their goals, or may not fully understand their own goals, but sympathetic efforts to contrast each party’s goals might work better than assuming that everyone has the same motives. 

Five: Discover flawed beliefs. If we listen carefully to the opposite side, maybe we can spot errors in their thinking, erroneous or unnecessary assumptions they are making.  And if we explain our own position, maybe others can notice mistakes we are making. People often get defensive about such flaws, so they need to be described tactfully. Sincere questions are often the best way forward.

This list is not exhaustive. I am sure readers can generate other techniques they find useful. Some strategies may require professional skills. For example, Jay Rothman, a specialist in conflict resolution, believes that many disagreements stem from deeply-rooted identity issues that have to be surfaced and acknowledged in order to make progress. Each party needs to hear how the conflict reflects the identity dynamics of the other. The purpose of this essay is not to review the entire field, but simply to show that there are approaches other than the majority imposing its will. 

All of these strategies can be useful when parties who would like to work better together are block by honest disagreements. But not all disagreements are honest.

Too often, people engage in dishonest disagreements: One of the parties may be holding a grudge, or may feel antagonism and is searching for ways to express it —searching for ways to demean the other, impugn the other’s motives and character, disqualify the judgments and competence of the other. The specific disagreement is just a vehicle for launching an attack.  The festering antagonism seeks expression as a disagreement. None of the six strategies described above will be useful with dishonest disagreements because the intent is to make use of the dispute, not to resolve it.

The line between honest and dishonest disagreements blurs when an honest disagreement becomes heated and gives rise to antagonism, a desire to win the debate at almost all costs. Too many arguments become inflamed in this way. That’s why it’s important to try to de-escalate the dispute before it gets out of control.