As an accountant, you’ve probably learned some form of conflict management in your continuing education or in some type of corporate training. You’ve most likely come across an article, a seminar or possibly some continuing education class that addresses conflict management.
Most of the time we’re taught conflict management in terms of work conflicts. For example, there’s an issue between lower and upper management, and you’re taught how to approach, manage, and resolve conflicts in as productive and efficient a way as possible, often with certain protocols put in place to ensure that conflicts are dealt with in a fair and professional manner.
While there are also many books and seminars that teach conflict management, especially in business settings, what about just normal, everyday disagreements? What about when you don’t agree with your spouse, your mother-in-law, or your children? Most of us, me included, aren’t very good at disagreeing with someone without getting upset.
Unfortunately, if the 2020 election year and the pandemic protocols in the United States are any indication, disagreements can become so divisive that they can tear relationships apart, divide us to the point of explosive anger, and leave us with a Grand Canyon-size gap between those that agree with us and those that don’t. Sometimes we can agree to disagree, but more often than not, we can’t even sustain that agreement.
So before I discuss a better way to handle disagreements, let’s first discuss what a disagreement really is. The definition that I found is a “lack of consensus or approval”, which means that, on the spectrum of disagreements, you could have a slight difference of opinion on one end, or an all out feud on the other end.
For example, on the lower end of the spectrum, you can disagree on what restaurant to eat at and not have it be a big problem. However, on the other end of the spectrum, you can disagree on who said what last night and have a full blown fight.
The issue for most of us is that we’ve never been taught the real reason we even have disagreements in the first place, or how we can have different opinions about things and have calm conversations about them, without needing to change other people’s minds. What often happens is we either assume we know why someone disagrees with us, or they actually voice their differing opinion, and we feel the need to defend ours.
If you’ve been listening to the podcast for awhile, you’ll probably know the answer to the reason we have disagreements in the first place – it’s because we have a human brain and that brain has thoughts, beliefs, opinions, and perceptions that can often be different than other people’s human brains. There are many factors that go into how we perceive things, but when it comes to human brains, it’s absolutely true that no two minds ever consistently think alike.
You most likely have people in your life with very similar beliefs, yet there are things you don’t agree with, and maybe you’ve expressed your disagreement or maybe you haven’t. For a lot of women, we often don’t want to disagree with others out loud because we’re afraid of what they will think of us, making us go along with other people’s differing opinions in order to “keep the peace”.
But the issue then becomes not being able to express what’s true for you, eventually becoming more comfortable with avoidance than authenticity. When you don’t know a better way to handle disagreements, most women, myself included, would rather stay away from them as much as possible.
This week I’m going to discuss why we tend to struggle so much with disagreements, as well as strategies to help you handle disagreements.
Why we tend to struggle so much with disagreements
As I said, when you don’t know a better way to handle disagreements, you either tend to avoid them, or you do have a disagreement but don’t know how to handle it in the best way possible. This can make it very uncomfortable to be in certain situations or with certain people.
What often happens is that, when you have a disagreement with someone, you feel the need to defend your position. As if you’re an attorney presenting a case to a judge and jury, you start to build up a case in your mind, defending why you think the way you do about the subject being disagreed upon, often just waiting for your turn to interject your point of view.
So in essence, what typically happens for a lot of women is that we’re either in a defensive stance or a passive stance, which means we’re either defending our opinion or not sharing our opinion. Unfortunately, this can become habitual and then affect us both professionally and personally.
For example, you might find yourself often at odds with your spouse about things like finances, division of household chores, and child rearing, just to name a few. Or you might have a habit of not speaking up at meetings at work or with clients, going along with what others think even if it’s not what you think.
Since you’re a creature of habit, when you encounter a disagreement, you probably tend to handle it in one or both of the following ways – defensively or passively:
- You try to get the other person to agree with you – this is most often the defensive stance. When this happens, you become aware that someone else’s opinion differs from yours, you have a discussion, but during the discussion you’re really trying to figure out where you’re right and they’re wrong. The issue with this is that you’re listening to what the other person is saying through the lens of “Where can I point out where they’re wrong?”. When you’re trying to get the other person to agree with you, you’re looking for ways to poke holes in their argument in order to prove that you’re right; in order to defend your opinion and for them to change their minds and agree with you. You’re listening, but with an agenda. That agenda winds up being a tally of all the ways you think they’re wrong.
- You try to control how the other person is feeling – this is most often the passive stance. When this happens, you’re trying to make the person feel good, feel heard, or feel valued. In essence, you are making your feelings dependent on theirs, so you try to please them by passively not sharing a differing opinion. The issue is that you cannot control how other people feel, no matter what you do or do not say. How someone feels is not caused by you sharing a differing opinion from them; it only comes from the thoughts they have in their brain. Honestly, you don’t have the power to create someone else’s feelings. The only thing you do have power to create is your own feelings and how you show up in situations where you disagree. Sometimes people want to feel bad, and that’s okay. Trying to control other people’s feelings is a futile way for you to feel better as well.
Whether you tend to take a defensive stance or a passive stance, thankfully there are better ways to handle disagreements so that you no longer need to either be bracing for a fight or shying away from expressing yourself.
Strategies to help you handle disagreements
Whether it’s a simple disagreement with your family about what movie to watch, or a more complicated disagreement with your business partner about a different direction to go in with your business, I’m going to share two things you can do to better handle disagreements. Instead of letting disagreements escalate into bigger issues, here are two strategies that can help:
Check in with how YOU are feeling
Sometimes you can get so caught up in what someone else is feeling that you forget to check in with yourself to understand what’s really going on for you. It’s interesting to point out that as humans, we naturally mirror each other’s emotions, which means that we often abdicate how we want to feel because we’re not aware of the fact that we’re mirroring the other person’s emotions.
This is why it’s important to understand that how you feel depends on the thoughts you’re having, and that you can actually choose, on purpose, how you want to feel. The reason you want to get clear about how you are feeling is because that’s how you’re going to show up during that disagreement.
For example, if you’re feeling angry, frustrated, or defensive, then what you say, the tone you use, the points you make, and how you listen or not, will be completely different than if you were feeling open and curious about what was going on for the other person. By getting clear about what you’re thinking, you won’t be so prone to automatically mirror what others are feeling.
Another interesting thing is that most of us enter a disagreement feeling bad about something and then try to defend our right to feel bad. We feel angry, frustrated, or defensive and then try to convince the other person why we feel entitled to feel that way, without really questioning whether that’s how we actually want to feel and whether that’s useful or not.
Think about it – instead of wasting your energy and your time mirroring someone else’s negative emotions, or trying to convince them to mirror yours, why not choose how you WANT to feel instead, and let them mirror that. It might sound strange at first, but imagine choosing to feel love on purpose and then discussing movie options with your family, or choosing to feel compassion on purpose and then discussing future business plans with your business partner.
When you deliberately choose to feel emotions like openness, love, or compassion, you create an opportunity for the other person, or people, to mirror YOU instead of giving them the power to influence you in a negative way.
Practice curiosity more often
I’m sure you can relate to this, but more often than not, we assume we know what someone else is thinking, what they’re feeling, and why they do or don’t do certain things. We believe we know their motivations before we’ve really gotten all the facts straight.
The reason this happens is because we have a human brain and our brain likes to make assumptions because it’s one way that our brain saves energy. It’s important to understand that we naturally draw on our past experiences to find patterns in how the world works, so when we encounter new situations, we apply these patterns, or assumptions, to the new environment.
This process saves us the energy of analyzing each situation completely anew, and it can often be quite useful. For example, if your daughter liked wearing the purple backpack to school everyday last week, it’s easy to assume that it will be okay this week, which then gives you the opportunity to not use much brain power trying to decide what backpack to give her.
The problem is that when we believe our assumptions, or our ways of interpreting situations, are the only way to interpret them, we open the door for disagreements and we make anyone that doesn’t see things our way wrong. In the daughter’s backpack example, suddenly the knee-jerk reaction is frustration towards your daughter when she doesn’t agree with you, that the purple backpack is the best option today.
But when you can try to be genuinely curious about another person’s side of a disagreement, instead of allowing your brain to automatically make assumptions, you might be surprised at what you discover. When you can approach a situation with questions like “I wonder what’s going on for them?”, “Is it possible something else is happening here?”, or “Is there something I’m missing?” you open the door to curiosity.
Who knows, maybe your daughter was made fun of for wearing the purple backpack and didn’t tell you. Or maybe she saw someone she admires wearing a different color and thought that might make her liked more. You’ll never know until you practice curiosity more often.
One of the most powerful strategies I learned in order to help better handle disagreements is to be curious about what someone else is thinking and then put yourself in their brain by saying to yourself, “If I was thinking (fill in the blank with their thought), I would probably feel the same way they do”. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with them; you’re just understanding that if you had the same thoughts they’re having, you might feel the same way they do.
For example, let’s say that you and your friend disagree about who was paying for dinner. When you come from a place of curiosity, you would ask them how they see the situation and why they feel the way they do; then you would put yourself in their brain and see if you can be open to feeling the same way they do based on thinking the way they might be thinking.
So in this example, you would ask your friend from a place of curiosity, rather than defensiveness, what they were thinking about who is paying for dinner and let’s say your friend says, “I thought we were splitting the bill because we had discussed that I needed to be more aware of my spending habits”. Now you can put yourself in their brain with the thought, “We’re splitting the bill because we had discussed that I need to be more aware of my spending habits” and then you would most likely understand why she disagreed with you wanting her to pay for dinner because you paid the last time you went out.
It’s important to note that when you practice curiosity more often, it doesn’t mean you have to agree with anyone, it just means you can see how, if you were thinking what they’re thinking, you would feel the way they’re feeling. You aren’t making you or them wrong for your differing perceptions, you’re just being more curious and less defensive.
One of my favorite authors, Byron Katie, famously said, “Defense is the first act of war”, which means a better way to handle disagreements is to be open and curious instead of letting your brain make assumptions and become defensive. Checking in with how you feel so you can choose a more helpful feeling on purpose, as well as practicing curiosity more often, will definitely help.
Hopefully you now understand why we struggle so much with disagreements and you’ve learned some strategies to better handle disagreements when they happen. As I said before, no two minds think consistently alike, so it’s completely natural that disagreements will happen, but now you have some tools to think about and put into practice going forward.
- For a lot of women, we often don’t want to disagree with others out loud because we’re afraid of what they will think of us, often making us go along with other people’s differing opinions in order to “keep the peace”.
- Another interesting thing is that most of us enter a disagreement feeling bad about something and then try to defend our right to feel bad.
- The problem is that when we believe our assumptions, or our ways of interpreting situations, are the only way to interpret them, we open the door for disagreements and we make anyone that doesn’t see things our way wrong.