How to Work Together When You Disagree

Conflict is inevitable in the workplace. Here is how to stay in control, communicate fairly, and get what you want, even around the most difficult situations.

Conflict is inevitable in the workplace. There are bound to be situations where your supervisors, coworkers, or customers see things differently than you and you disagree.

You’ve probably experienced several of these situations:

  • You don’t get the raise you asked for or you’re disappointed with your performance review
  • You and your supervisor are not aligned. You think your hard work isn’t acknowledged or you don’t get the direction or support you want
  • A co-worker confronts you about something you did that offended them or you confront a co-worker but their behavior didn’t change
  • Your customer is making unreasonable demands

How do you react? What’s your default mode?

Are you passive? Do you second guess your words to avoid sounding angry or pushy? Do you come across as apologetic when that isn’t your intention?

Do you freeze and lose track of what you want to say? Walk away thinking about what you should have said.

Are you aggressive? Do you counter-punch? Do you feel contempt for the people who don’t agree with you?

The bad news is that none of these reactions will help you advance your objectives in a real or lasting way. However, you can learn to accept conflicting opinions without losing your ground and stay focused and connected to others in the midst of conflict. It’s largely a matter of learning (or relearning) certain communication skills that will serve you better.

This article outlines a communications model that, with practice, will help you stay in control, communicate fairly, and get what you want, even around the most difficult situations.

Triangle Talk

One communications method that has applications for all of the situations mentioned, and more, is “Triangle Talk.” It’s a win-win model developed by Kare Anderson.*

Triangle Talk a simple, subtle, yet very powerful three-step model. It’s useful in formal situations like salary negotiations and performance reviews, and also in a myriad of other difficult conversations that pop up informally in both your personal and professional life. I have taught it in workshops and to individuals and use it myself any time I need to build ground and come to an agreement with someone whose views are different from mine.

  1. Know exactly what you want.

    Before speaking ask yourself: What do I want? or What do I want from this situation and what must I do to get it.” Avoid getting into “Who’s right or wrong.”

    What you want is your rudder, your guide in the conversation. When you understand your bottom line, the action path often falls into line. Getting clear about what you want will help you stay focused on the issues (rather than emotions) and keep you from losing track or getting bogged down.

  2. Find out what the other person wants and make certain they feel heard.

    Address their concerns first, asking open-ended questions to clarify their needs. Check that you’ve understood correctly and focus on acknowledging their viewpoint, particularly when you don’t agree. This will build a positive bond between you. Even the most negative situation can be turned around.

    We all make assumptions about people and have prejudices, both positive and negative. Asking makes you aware of your assumptions and prejudices so you can find out what’s really going on.

    When you have the actual conversation, start here.

    People need the opportunity to air their feelings and ideas without being interrupted or judged and to know that those feelings and ideas have been heard. If you don’t give them that attention, they won’t give it to you.

  3. Propose action in a way they can accept.

    The process is to connect their interests to your common interests (where you agree) to your interests (what you want).

There is always some area of agreement. If you’ve followed step 1 and 2 you’ve learned more about what you want, and about what the other person wants, so the mutual ground will be clearer.

Speak to their needs first. Restate their concerns. Then bridge from their interests - to your common interests - to your interests. For example, holding the meeting out of town (their idea) has a lot of support in the company (common ground). And there’s one place in particular I’d like to recommend (your idea).

Some additional ways to make your ideas sound more compelling.

  • Connect your ideas to the qualities the other values
  • Another is to use words to create a vivid mental picture of the solution you’re proposing

These steps form a triangle, an image you visualize whenever you want to remind yourself to stand your ground, while respecting the needs of the other person.

Knowing Triangle Talk will help you stay in control when the going gets tough. Practicing these win-win skills will help you gain the objectivity you need to create lasting agreements between people and within communities. With practice you’ll realize that almost everything is negotiable, which opens the way to an expanded view of who you are and what you can do. You’ll recognize that people and situations that used to seem intractable, no longer limit you.

* Triangle Talk is presented in Kare Anderson’s book “Getting What You Want.” It is out of print but available second-hand on Amazon.