Skip to main content

The Big Story: How to Master the Art of Respectful Disagreement

“Our brains treat having our ideas attacked in the same way as if our body was being attacked,” says David Supp-Montgomerie, an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Iowa, who directs the school’s Civic Dialogue Initiative.

Getting Comfortable with the Uncomfortable

By Lauren McConville
3-minute read

We live in the Age of Disagreement. We build it as entertainment. The more inflammatory or graphic, the more it seems to resonate. In healthcare we work against a national backdrop of anger and stressed-out colleagues who are trying their best to keep afloat with the daily asks plus the new initiatives executive teams are layering atop them.

Yet in the quieter executive suites of health systems, there’s a temptation for leaders to consult the same three voices and allow that triumvirate of C-suiters to solve all the issues without much outside input. As a leader yourself, when was the last time your team brought a dissenting opinion to your office or to the team discussion? In the exhaustion following the pandemic, we’ve watched some leadership teams trend towards more “Yes” and less debate, prone to just going along with ideas versus healthily discussing the next right move.

While our national discontent screams from our screens every day, there may be considerable quiet disagreement simmering within the local healthcare workplace. Which does nothing to help make healthcare better. It may seem counterintuitive, but this is the time to push healthy disagreement – both to make our organizations better and to remind people that such a thing exists.

To be perfectly blunt: Being able to disagree and get stuff done is critical for any leader.

The benefits of productive conflict?

  • It indicates a culture of learning, where input from cross-functional voices can help solve complex issues.
  • It affirms an environment where “safety” matters more than “harmony.” And critically, in healthcare, not speaking up can be dangerous on patient floors. Let’s model this courage to question and debate at the top of the house, too.
  • It encourages innovation, with unconventional thinkers who dare to offer new perspectives and unique answers.
  • It demonstrates appreciation for team members, which helps with retention and recruitment.

As we roll into the second half of 2024, the mid-year milestone is a smart time to assess whether your organization’s environment allows the sharpest thinking to surface. Are you speaking up? Is your team? If not, it may be time to consider and set new expectations for forthrightness and participation.

Here’s some thinking on how to manage tough conversations among your teams or individuals.

Practice, then put into practice

Gearing up for hard conversations. Per the WSJ article, a sports physician needing to medically bench a pro athlete, prepared for the call by first putting himself in the player’s shoes. Then he rehearsed. Ultimately, he began the call with a calm: “Hello, I need your help. We are going to disagree, but we are going to have a discussion.” From there, fight-or-flight response averted, what could follow was the envisioning of a positive outcome – together.

Value respectful disagreement. Consensus, frankly, can be damaging. Consensus often arises from compromise, which may mean a watering down of ideas. The point should not be to reach consensus, but to find the best solution. Creative, not bland, solutions are necessary in this world where resources are finite.

Proactively set the expectation for openness. As leader in a group situation, name the ground rules for healthy conflict – set the platform for a discussion where everyone’s opinions are considered in search of a great solution. This may entail establishing up front what it means to be part of the team and to state that healthy debate and respectful opinion sharing is a baseline expectation.

Start by asking for their help. Like the physician and athlete scenario, understand another’s perspective first – especially the background the person is bringing to the conversation. When you begin the conversation, solicit their help in problem solving first; then ask them to share their point of view before you present your opinion or decision.

Engage thoughtfully. Disagree, talk about what you think. Listen to and hear each other. Champion anecdotes that illustrate you changing course based on the actions or ideas of another. Frequently tie back to your organization’s mission and ultimate goals. Dial down the whirr of your mind and be present in a conversation. Avoid predicting answers, preparing to interrupt or – committing the biggest cardinal sin – multi-tasking.

Augment data with stories. Numbers have teeth. They can set boundaries and draw sharp lines. Yet they don’t give the full picture. So, don’t underestimate the power of stories to create action that is supported by data, to spur the emotional energy needed for understanding and acceptance.

Grab a Post-it™. Struggling to get people to speak their mind? Have too much groupthink? Have everyone jot down their idea individually, then collect and share. There’s simple safety in having an idea in writing, rather than the fear (warranted or not) of being the first to speak.

Closing the conversation. This may mean leaving meetings where not everyone feels good – but never ending a meeting where people haven’t heard each other. Every high-functioning executive team should normalize healthy disagreement and the art of getting comfortable with the uncomfortable. And yes, it can be beneficial to end a meeting with an issue unresolved and needing more discussion – because that creative tension can birth productive solutions.

Finally, here’s the tough talk: If you haven’t heard “No,” you either don’t have the right team in place or you haven’t created the space for “No” to be an acceptable answer. Look around. Look inwardly. Then, dare everyone to disagree.