How Disagreements can be Productive

In today’s culture we often assign a value to conversations: that it’s “good” to agree and “bad” to argue. While it can be challenging to have a conversation with someone who has a conflicting point of view, often innovative solutions can come out of these moments. Some of these strategies can help. 

There are a million and one topics in the workspace that can cause tension between employees. On everything from world issues to personal items, there is no lack of opportunity to find someone else who disagrees with your personal or professional opinion. Often these types of conversations leave everyone involved feeling dissatisfied, unheard, and hurt. 

When disagreements are handled appropriately, they can lead to the creation of better results. Unfortunately, more often than not they do not end that way. Studies show we often we use the word “fight” to describe arguments in the workspace and “dysfunctional” to describe our relationship with our colleagues overall. When we face disagreements at work, we often fail to communicate effectively, which only fuels conflict and resentment and ends in damaged relationships. 

Arguments don’t have to be this way, though. New research including over 2,000 people across multiple studies show a few ideas that we all can implement to disagree better, both at work and beyond. Here are three suggested strategies you can use.

1: Focus on what you can LEARN.

Often times when we enter a conversation, our sole focus is to prove our point and show everyone involved why we are right. Despite the fact that this is common, this mentality often leads to unproductive results. When you approach a conversation with a state of mind open to learning, the entire interaction will fare better for you. This leaves you mental space to listen to what the other person is saying and leaves you open for creating a solution together, rather than closing off and digging into what you already consider “right” or “wrong”.

2: Don’t underestimate others’ interest in learning from YOU.

How we experience conflict and how an interaction unfolds is heavily affected by how we perceive the other person feels about us. More often than not, we tend to misinterpret the other person and believe our perceptions rather than asking for the facts. Overall, when entering an argument, we tend to believe that the other person is not interested in hearing what we have to say, which immediately puts us in a place of defensiveness. Studies have shown that even when interacting with someone who has an opposing view who is open to learning, this belief did not change. On the flip side, we tend to overestimate our own willingness to hear and listen to what the other person has to say. 

What we believe about a person’s ability to have a conversation with us is a key factor in how an argument will end. In fact, studies show that your belief about whether a person is willing to learn from you and listen is the single most important predictor of how a conflict will end. 

3: Be clear about your INTENTIONS.

Given the fact that the person on the other side of the table most likely does not believe you are interested in learning from them, be clear about your intentions when entering a conversation that has the potential to involve conflict. It only takes a moment to state how you would like the conversation to go and what you are interested in. For example, you might say: “This is an important topic and I am interested in hearing your take on it and why you feel that way. My goal is to better understand where people are coming from.”

We all want to feel heard and understood by our colleagues in the workplace. How we choose to handle conflict can ultimately create more community at work or create more division. When we enter an argument with negative beliefs about the other person’s willingness to hear us, it drives the entire conversation to failure. Instead of a commitment to these negative views, research shows that clearly stating our expectations and intentions around conflict alongside an openness to listen and learn can change everything about how we experience arguments in the workplace. 


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