How to Disagree Well

Skillful leaders keep the focus on the content, not the feelings, emotional intelligence expert Daniel Goleman writes.

Daniel Goleman, author of the bestseller “Emotional Intelligence,” is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry.

Imagine this scenario. The vice president of sales for a consumer electronics company laid out a new strategy for a region's sales team. He had barely left the room after meeting when everyone started talking at once. 

Darren said, “If he thinks that’s going to work, he’s an idiot.”

Lawrence said, “Of course, he’s in favor of the new policy, it doesn’t impact him.”

Nancy said, “His tone is so arrogant.”

Sam said, “That strategy won’t work!”

Paula said, “He said, ‘Sales have been low because we’re targeting the wrong demographics.’ That just isn’t true. Our competitors sell to that same demographic.”

Tony said, “The main problem with his new policy isn’t demographics, it’s the techniques he wants us to use. Those sales techniques might work in cities, but most of our customers are rural and suburban. They follow different media than the city customers.” 

Everyone disagreed with the sales director -- but who, if anyone, did so in a way that was helpful? What does it mean to disagree well? That’s the question programmer, writer and investor Paul Graham set out to answer in his 2008 essay, “How to Disagree.” Graham had noticed how online conversations often include disagreement.

This happens, as I’ve written in The Brain and Emotional Intelligence, because the social circuits of the brain are designed for face-to-face interaction, not online. In person we pick up countless cues on how the other person feels, and respond accordingly. None of those signals go along with an email, text or short comment.

Graham saw an increasing amount of angry conversations on the web. He could see that how people expressed their different opinions fueled anger. So, he analyzed their responses into a “disagreement hierarchy.”

The sales team’s comments illustrate that hierarchy: Two of team attacked the speaker, not the content, like Darren’s name-calling and Lawrence’s ad hominem attack. Two others responded to the content, but not specifically, like Nancy’s, who responded to tone, and Sam’s simple counterargument.

But two others did respond directly to the content, not the tone or the person. Paula’s refutation – that they were selling to the same demographic as their competitors - and Tony’s refuting the central point: that most customers are rural and respond differently than an urban demographic. Any of these types of various responses can be on point, but those that respond directly to the content itself are the most useful.

Why Does Understanding this Matter?

Leaders deal with disagreements every day, either as the target or offering them to other people. Understanding these different ways to disagree helps leaders evaluate how respond better – disagree well. In terms of emotional intelligence, considering how to react with some thoughtfulness can help a leader step back from what otherwise merely be a knee-jerk emotional response.

How to Disagree Well

Many of the twelve competencies in my Emotional and Social Intelligence model come into play here, especially these: emotional self-awareness, emotional self-control, organizational awareness, influence, conflict management, and teamwork. Graham was right: disagreements easily flare into anger, defensiveness, and resentment – or any of other disruptive emotions clouding disagreements. Skillful leaders keep the focus on the content, not the feelings.