What Turns Disagreements into Opportunities?

Think about a disagreement you’ve witnessed others having or one you’ve been in yourself.

Which way did it go?

Did you end up in a polarised stand-off or an out-and-out conflict? Or did both sides see the situation through new lenses that led to opportunities neither could have envisaged beforehand?

Recently I’ve had the privilege of studying up close what makes the latter more likely in a Sector that’s renowned for its adversarial culture: Construction. Here’s what I’ve been noticing:

Normalising disagreements helps

Some believe conflict is the natural way of things. Weaned on narratives such as life is about the survival of the fittest and is a zero-sum-game they understandably see situations in win-lose terms. Consequently, they show up in negotiations and decision-making discussions with the goal of making sure they win. That is their unquestioned norm, it’s “the way things get done around here.” And it matters because their reputations and careers have been built on these foundations.

Others see disagreement as a sign of failure. Steeped in the notion that working relationships should be harmonious, differences are swept under the carpet, or avoided altogether so as to “preserve a positive atmosphere.” Typically, values such as respect, compassion, and community hold this approach to life in place.

When in the presence of people who think in these different ways I find it helps to normalise their experience. By that, I mean recognising that any one of us is capable of being in either camp depending on our backgrounds and the circumstances before us.

For example, I recently found myself saying “It seems to me that whenever we-humans come together to get stuff done, disagreements about the why, when, what, how, and who are inevitable. We can all approach these questions from either a competitive or harmonious frame of mind. That’s what minds do.”

The impact this invariably has is it reassures those I’m trying to help. No one is being blamed for whatever their preferred approach happens to be. To label one as weak and the other strong serves no purpose. Each, after all, is only acting according to the thinking that makes the most sense to them.

Curiosity matters

Having laid the foundations for a blame-free dialogue, I get permission to build curiosity about those thinking habits that parties to a disagreement are living from. Gentle probing into how a person feels about a disagreement often reveals trains of thought they themselves were unaware of but which inadvertently drives their behaviours.

For instance, while there are many different trains of thought unique to different individuals, three common ones include:

  1. That’s the way we’ve always done things and I feel helpless when getting agreement to change it.
  2. We’re the servants in a master-servant relationship so should do as we’re told but resent it.
  3. Good relationships are the by-product of good performance not integral to it: people need to prove themselves before I can get on with them.

Surfacing these hidden thought patterns helps team members see why they experience disagreements the way they do: usually as a stress more than a stimulus to new ways forward. It offers up the possibility that their fears, concerns, and frustrations stem more from the lens through which they interpret others’ behaviour than what others actually say or do.

Most importantly though it makes contemplating this question both possible and easier: what if your train of thought isn’t true in every situation?

People are quite capable of finding new answers themselves

The what-if-it’s-not-true question, asked in a blame-free-and-curious setting, can be a bit of a game-changer. It can free people to find new answers that shift the troubling feelings they’re experiencing.

For instance, if I take time to dwell on the fact my emotions about a disagreement stem not from what others do or say but the out-of-sight, habitual and innocent way I think about that, my need to project troubling feelings onto those I disagree with diminishes. Instead of blaming others for causing my difficulties and searching for yet more evidence to prove my troubling feelings are right, I start to wonder what trains of thought I might jump off so as to a) not feel this way and b) move things forward.

Try this on yourself.

Suppose you lived from the three trains of thought described above which, on the whole, left you feeling helpless, resentful, and at arm’s length in a key relationship respectively. Any difference or disagreement that arises when you’re in these emotional states is likely to loom large, reinforce what you thought all along and make matters worse. But what if you spotted the thoughts driving these feelings and subjected them to the are-they-true test.

Might your helplessness over changing the status quo for the better look different?

Could the metaphor of servant to a master shift to one that’s more equal and recognises mutual interests?

And what if relationship building was seen as integral to great performance, not its by-product? Might that pave the way to apologise for previous unintentional behaviour and develop a new modus operandi going forward that might previously have seemed unimaginable?

Maybe. Maybe not.

Some practical downsides and upsides

I notice the if-not-true question doesn’t always work on the first outing or subsequent ones.

Though deep down we know we can place our attention wherever we want, any one of us can be so steeped in a particular reality, questioning its truthfulness can seem threatening at first. This is especially so if sufficient reassurance and curiosity has not been built and someone believes there is an alternative I’m trying to impose or otherwise influence them on: the so-called “hidden agenda.” Helping people see the thought-created reality they’re living from has to be agenda-free to overcome this. Also, it’s more an iterative process than a quick-fix one.

Despite these limitations and uncertainties, creating space for people to open up to new thinking of their own has a lot of potential upside.

Imagine if negative emotions could no longer hijack people’s behaviour and instead provoked curiosity about seeing situations through clearer lenses.

Envisage teams welcoming differences as an integral part of their norm: rather than let disagreements divide them they’ve crafted ways to use them as stimulants to greater performance.

Might this be the kind of culture people love being around because it helps them be at their best?

Let me know about your practical experiences of turning disagreements into opportunities.


Roger Martin
Roger Martin
I’ve had the privilege of working in the team and leadership development space for over 30 years now. I see myself as a student of what works best for those who want to be at their best more often. During that time I’ve had to learn to not be the guru with a box of tricks and pre-set answers. No two circumstances and sets of people are the same, and though once a fan of cookie-cutter solutions, am now somewhat wary of them. Staying in student mode keeps my curiosity level high and focused on those nuances that have the potential to make a big difference. In 2016 I co-founded The Mindset Difference. We are a niche London-based consultancy dedicated to helping leaders be at their best, irrespective of the circumstances they face. We see ourselves as pioneers in the leadership and team development space because rather than add more knowledge and skills into leaders' busy minds, we help them subtract thinking that prevents access to those innate qualities they already have - compassion, creativity, resilience, resourcefulness, collaboration, etc. Oh, and I enjoy writing too. That’s why I’m here doing what I can to help you tap into your own innate qualities.

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  1. Surely those familiar with human psychology are able to comment on this topic better.
    In my humble opinion, I can only say that the needs of both parties play an important role in the success of relationships and each deserves respect and consideration. In personal relationships, the lack of understanding of everyone’s different needs leads to estrangement, quarrels and breakups. However, if the legitimacy of the needs of the discussion is recognized and if people are willing to examine them with understanding, avenues open to creative problem solutions and improve relationships.
    On the other hand, discussions provoke strong emotions and, if we are unable to manage them or manage the stress they cause, it will be very difficult to resolve discussions successfully.
    However, discussions are opportunities for growth since, when we are able to resolve them, they increase our trust in relationships. This is due to the security that it creates in knowing that such relationships can survive the disagreements and the different challenges that may arise.

    • “This is due to the security that it creates in knowing that such relationships can survive the disagreements and the different challenges that may arise.” Totally agree, Aldo. I have found that if something irks me and I let the other person know what and why and what my own hangups around the issue are – that is disclosing a little about why this rubbed me the wrong way – we will often be better friends afterwards.

      Someone wiser than me said that if we feel the pinch more than three times, it will turn into something that will fester, and we owe it to the other person not to keep quiet about it. That doesn’t mean to be nasty. It means to let them know what story we tell ourselves about the situation when we feel the pinch, understanding that it may well be a wrong story and, hence, checking it with the person.
      Usually people don’t want to influence us to think they are careless or mocking or judgmental and will share their intent and/or realize that there are more than one way to interpret the situation that they thought was clear cut from their personal perspective or lack of same.

  2. Stay being ‘unusual’ Mac, this is not a bridge too far!

    What matters, it seems to me, is what works for the individuals we’re trying to help. If labeling, of any kind, gets in the way, ignore it. I used it here because very pragmatic business clients often present wanting to replace emotions that trouble them (negative) with something else (less negative or positive.)

    You have a point in that I can see where labels may go in the case of grief. Having recently lost a step daughter to suicide I now look back on the grieving process positively and with gratitude: it helped me be with my most intimate thoughts amidst absence and loss. Grief, however, is often seen as negative or a sign of weakness rather than integral to the healing process.

    I’m less experienced on the addiction front, save for a few minor ones of my own! And I notice among those who have kicked a habit, they seem to do so by rediscovering that part of themselves their addiction obscured, while at the same time as grieving its loss. For example I’ve heard them speak of ‘getting back to the real me’ and ‘taking less notice of the thought patterns and impulses that got me so addicted in the first place.’

    You and your work matters.

    Thanks for commenting.


  3. Hello, Roger.
    Okay, this may be a bridge too far, but that’s not unusual for this traveler. What if ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ were dropped as descriptors for emotions? I’m working on a piece about grief right now and how important that emotion is in processing change, no matter what kind. For instance, I work in the recovery community; one of the things I help people do is acknowledge and explore the grief they carry for leaving behind their addiction. It took a long, long time for that insight to find me. Grief occupies the space defined by absence and loss. It’s real and waits to be generative.
    Let’s talk.