7 Tips To Have A Productive Disagreement With Intimidating People

Contributing writer By Buster Benson
Contributing writer
Buster Benson is a product leader and advisor at several startups, including Amazon, Twitter, Slack, and Patreon. He is the author of Why Are We Yelling? The Art Of Productive Disagreement, and the "Cognitive Bias Cheat Sheet," a topping 100 article on Medium with over 1.4 million views.

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In order to have a productive disagreement with people (especially intimidating people), the very first thing you should keep in mind is actually the environment you're in. A safe, neutral space is key to facilitating mindful disagreement, so the next time you're hosting an intervention with a peer or arguing with a colleague, make sure the space is welcoming and neutral.

A space for productive disagreement needs to be neutral on three levels: It must allow different ideas and perspectives to be entertained so that new ideas and perspectives can be introduced or deferred; it must permit people to join and leave the conversation freely as ideas and perspectives evolve; and it must leave room for the space's character and culture itself to evolve as it molds itself to the relationships and conversations that have taken place within it.

Let's walk through some tips to see how each of the three levels fit together:

1. Make sure open-ended questions are welcome from anyone.

A neutral space is one that encourages big open-ended questions that take conversations to surprising places. It needs to feel more like a dinner table than a courtroom. Everyone should feel safe and free to speak for themselves and share their perspective with others.

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2. Allow new ideas and perspectives to be truly heard.

A neutral space can be ephemeral, like a post on Facebook or a dinner party or a phone call. Pay attention to the way different ideas, especially unfamiliar ones, are responded to. The space for ideas should feel neutral enough that even ideas that spark anxiety are given some time to be heard.

3. Make sure new participants are welcome.

A neutral space is one that invites diverse perspectives in, encourages sharing them, and is able to hold a discussion about anxiety when it sparks. That means it needs to welcome new participants and provide some form of on-boarding for them so that they can introduce themselves and have a chance to acclimate. It should feel more like a party than a manufacturing line.

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4. Encourage repeat visits.

The outer neutral space can be a physical setting, like a venue, or it can be a tradition of family dinners or a book club or a series of letters or a recurring event. Physical or not, it should feel like a relationship or a shared purpose that can stand the test of time. After all, isn't this exactly what the churches, companies, and institutions that are most meaningful to us really are—an inviting, long-lived, neutral space that allows people to come and go? When you're a member of these spaces, you become a part of them and absorb their rituals, scripts, and norms.

We should pay as much attention to the way we nest spaces within one another as to the contents of the spaces themselves. The quality of the fruit of disagreement that comes from a conversation relies as much on paying attention to who is not there, and who should be invited to join, as on the content of the disagreement directly.

5. Let the space gain character and warmth over time.

A neutral space that sticks around can sometimes form a character of its own over time, built up from the shadows of past conversations. Think of it like seasoning a cast-iron skillet with conversations that might have had some heat to them but didn't leave everyone feeling charred. Even one-off conversations will inherit qualities of the spaces they occur in, so pay attention to how any space can increase or decrease your chances of having a productive disagreement.

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6. Allow conversations to evolve at their own pace over days, months, and years.

A neutral space isn't in a hurry to resolve conflicts that pop up because that incentivizes people to prematurely close down dialogue and even avoid conflict in the first place. Instead, it welcomes disagreement as a signal that there's something important hiding in the negative space of the conversation. It might be information that contradicts the consensus of the group, it might be a feeling of compromised values that someone feels uncomfortable about, or it might be a hunch that the current proposal isn't as strong as another might be if given a chance to be evaluated honestly.

The shift that a neutral space allows in a conversation is to give ideas and people the time and attention they need to grow and develop, which will lead to stronger connections and ultimately more capacity to enjoy one another and the ideas of the group.

7. Make room for all of the realms (head, heart, and hands) to coexist.

A neutral space starts within your own thoughts, where your deepest beliefs and strongest values are stored, because those are the flint and steel that spark anxiety when they bump into other perspectives. Cultivating a neutral space benefits from some inward attention, whether it be via meditation or private journaling or simply blocking out time on your calendar that's entirely for you—permission to go on a walk or take a nap or read a book or enjoy a snack.

It's during these times that you can cultivate a neutral space for the voices of power, reason, and avoidance to speak up and be heard. Each of these automatic voices, powered by our automatic thinking processes, has a reason for being there, and our goal isn't to shut them down any more than it is to shut down conversations with other people.

Excerpted from Why Are We Yelling?: The Art of Productive Disagreement by Buster Benson, to be published on November 19th by Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. © 2019 by Buster Benson.

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