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06 Oct 2015

Facing disagreements with confidence: how to overcome 3 common mistakes

Disagreements make us all feel uncomfortable.  Even when we only “sense” that someone may disagree with us, we feel irritation and anxiety.  This discomfort can be particularly strong when the matter on which we meet the disagreement is important to us, especially when we have invested in developing our own opinion about it and we have collected strong evidence that makes us feel to “be in the right”.

We might be more open and tolerant when someone disagrees with us about how to best bake a pie if we are not interested in baking; but if we take pride in our bakery skills, or have invested in specific bakery training, we may easily take the disagreement as an attack to the very foundation of our competence.

Likewise, we might be more open to inputs on a project when it has just been assigned to us, but much less open once we have worked for months to set up the perfect roadmap.

And yet, we all know that the best bakers and the best project managers are those who continue to learn from external inputs and insights.  Great culinary achievements have emerged from going out of the known path and experimenting with ideas that may come even from the most inexperienced amateur cook.  Likewise, even the best roadmap can fail if we have ignored the resistance of any individual contributor who, albeit not an expert in the field, has a unique insight that can strengthen the plan and help bring everybody on board.

Unfortunately, when we go into a defensive mode, we stop listening with really open mind and we are consequently less influential. We actually loose the very respect that we try to protect.

There are three classic mistakes that we all tend to make when faced with the uncomfortable situation of meeting a disagreement:

Mistake #1:  We make it personal and get off-track.  The biggest risk of getting defensive in that we loose sight of the issue on the table and waste energy on completely irrelevant parts of the discussion.

In a famous Asterix comic book (Asterix and the Roman Agent), a well known troublemaker is sent by Caesar to break down the single-minded resistance of the Gaulish tribe; with great flare the troublemaker makes simple remarks that ignite the defensive reaction of everyone; he thus succeeds in getting them to loose sight of the common goal (making common front against the Romans). To demonstrate his abilities,  he even provokes Caesar himself, who quickly recognises how easy it is to fall into the defensive trap and thus miss the point.



=> How to overcome Mistake #1 in thee simple steps:

  • Increase awareness of our “soft spots”; by being alert to the areas where we tend  to get defensive, we can self-coach ourselves to stay calm and not get easily off track
  • Repeat what you hear, focussing on the part of the message that is relevant for the issue at hand: when we repeat out loud a comment, making the effort to grasp what is really relevant, we actually hear it better ourselves and can stay more detached and objective (e.g. “do I hear you correctly that you doubt the choice of action in this case and see a potential risk in it?)
  • Smile in our head: yes, this actually works! when we feel attacked and defensive, putting on even a fake smile is often able to shift our internal energy and make us see things under a better light (we may even switch from “how dare he treat me like this ” to “he is really a bad communicator, I am running the risk of taking it the wrong way, but happily I did catch myself in time”)


Mistake #2: We forget to use our curiosity and rely too much on rationality: when we hear a different opinion that challenges our conviction, the temptation is to talk more than to listen; to bury the other side under the weight of our rational power (better data, higher authority, more alliances, broader knowledge, etc.)  What happens to our natural curiosity to dig, explore and expand our perspective?

=> How to overcome Mistake #2:

  • Acknowledge the challenge and invite to elaborate more:  phrases like “wow, I did not expect that, tell me more” or “you raise a new point that I am not sure I know how to deal with, can you expand?” or “I understand we come from different perspectives, so we have a challenge, I am interested in hearing more of how you see it” have a double benefit: they communicate to the other person that we are open but “alert”, and they give us time to calm ourselves.
  • Practice Curiosity via Active Listening and Powerful Open-ended Questions: while questions like “why do you say that?” might at times bring people to justify their position, more critical questions like “what makes you say that?” or “what are your concerns?” or “how do you see it from your angle?” invite further exploration that can bring new insights.
  • Recognise that we build rational support around our opinions, not the other way around: as Nobel laureate Daniel Khaneman has amply divulged, we are often deceived by believing that we form our opinions based on rational analysis, whereas our brain follows the opposite path, collecting rationale around our initial impressions and judgements. We may often forget to play devil’s advocate with own our rationalisation and therefore forget that others might have equally sound rationalisations about opposite opinions; thus only an open dialogue can bring complementary insights, not fighting for who is “more right”


Mistake #3: We try to change others; this is the main pitfall of traditional “conflict management” training, which is often focused on tactics directed towards managing others, and might make us less authentic or even “manipulative”.  More productive approaches (from “Crucial Conversations” to the Arbinger training) are based on a “Change starts with me” mode

=> How to overcome Mistake #3:

  • Practicing and using positive language changes the way we feel and express ourselves, thus making us more influential; when I say “yes but” I focus on negativity and exclusion and my entire behaviour reflects a “half-empty glass” approach ; when I say “yes and” I actually change how I see things in my head, feel myself more positive and communicate from a place of trust and possibilities rather than from a place of fear and protection.
  • Practicing and using positive non-verbal communication has a powerful energising effect on our mind and makes us more creative open and receptive.  For example, training on “power positions” is proven to remove anxiety associated with examinations or interviews, so that we feel more confident and clearer in our thoughts, thus increasing our effectiveness and influence


By consciously applying these steps we can increase our confidence and effectiveness in redirecting disagreements to feed a constructive and engaging open dialogued private escalation to non-constructive confrontations or conflicts.


Join us this November 2015 in Zurich, Milan or Eindhoven for an interactive workshop on how to build confidence in handling disagreements with the C.L.E.A.R. Method

Laura Lozza is co-founder and CEO of GROOA, a European Partnership of Coaching Consultants, which specialises in Dealing with Change, Disagreements and Diversity. A former P&G and NorskHydro/Yara executive, an IMD graduate and a professional certified coach, Laura has also authored the ebook “The 7 Qualities of Brilliant Executive Coaching” (free download at                                                            Website: