Getting to the Heart of a Disagreement – and Resolving It

Roger Schwarz

When you have a disagreement with others, do you focus on developing common ground and try to minimize the differences? If so, you may be wasting valuable time and reducing the chance of genuinely resolving the conflict. Although finding common ground is valuable, the hard work involves understanding exactly where you and the other people differ, why you differ, and what to do about it. Until you accomplish that, you won’t resolve the disagreement. Here are four steps to do this:

1. Each party explains their reasoning.

One way to think about a conflict is to think of two people taking a car trip. Each of you has a roadmap that shows your starting point, your destination and how you want to reach it. If both of you agree on the destination and how you will get there, you’re fine, even if you are starting from different places. But, if you want to go to different places or even take different routes to the same destination, you have a potential conflict.

In conflicts, each person has a roadmap in their head. The roadmap is the reasoning process by which you get from your starting point to your destination. The starting point is your values and assumptions. The route includes the needs you are trying to meet and the relevant information you have about the situation. And the destination is the solution you are proposing.

2. Identify the point where the different parties’ reasoning diverges.

The sooner you identify the point at which your reasoning first diverges from the other party, the more time you will have to resolve the conflict. You do this by comparing your roadmap with the other party’s roadmap. Do your roadmaps diverge at the point of your initial assumptions, at the point of trying to meet conflicting interests, or at the point where you have conflicting information about the facts? For example, if you are disagreeing over how soon to start a particular project, is it because you have different assumptions about how long it will take to complete, different interests that lead you to prefer starting sooner or later, or different information about the availability of the people you need on the project?

3. Explore the divergent point to fully understand it.

Now you can get curious. What leads the other party to hold the assumption or interest they do? If your information is in conflict with the other party, what specifically is in conflict? If you and the other party hold conflicting assumptions about how long the project will take to complete, you want to explore how each of you arrived at these assumptions (or inferences). If you have different interests you are trying to meet, you want to understand more about the different interests. If you have conflicting information, you want to identify exactly what information is conflicting.

4. Craft a solution that enables you and the other party to stay on the same path.

After you fully identify the point of divergence, try to craft a solution that puts both of you back on the same path. You may need to test out your differing assumptions to see which is valid. You may need to find a way to bridge potentially conflicting interests. Or, you may need to find a way of validating which relevant information is valid. You do this by jointly designing a way to test the difference.

5. Repeat step 2

to determine if there are any other places where you and the other party’s reasoning diverges. If there are other places, follow steps 3 and 4 until you find yourself on the same path to your destination.

Remember, disagreements are natural and inevitable. How you approach them makes all the difference.

Originally published October 2010