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When in conflict, agree before you disagree

If you find yourself in conflict with others, caught in an endless series of arguments and disagreements, it can pay to examine the role that your communication is playing in the mess.

Here’s a typical scenario. You’re in a tough conversation. You’ve been listening patiently, refraining from interrupting the other person, but desperate to speak and share your view. They’ve just stopped speaking and it's now time for your to respond. The first words that come out of your mouth are, ‘I agree with you but …’

STOP! This is the least helpful thing you can say, even though in my experience it is the most common thing that people do.

Why is it unhelpful? Let’s count the ways. First, you haven’t provided any indication of what it is that you agree with them on. Second, the words ‘I agree with you’ sound like an insincere and pacifying throwaway line, not a genuine statement. Third, the word ‘but’ cancels out everything that comes before it. The moment it issues from your mouth it signals that all that came before is irrelevant. Fourth, the absence of a clear indication of where you are in agreement with means that warmth and connection are being lost in the process.

I recommend that leaders be very clear and precise about what they agree with the other party on before they progress to describing the areas that they disagree on. It sounds something like this:

‘Thanks for sharing your views. I agree with you that the project is a challenging one. I can agree with you that the timelines are extremely demanding, and beyond anything we have tried to deliver before. I also agree that you personally have been working very hard to try to make this work. Your individual efforts are undeniable. Where I disagree with you is that the deliverables are impossible. Yes, I agree that they are very difficult, but I don’t believe that they are impossible if we can increase the contributions of some of your team. Let me explain why I think that …’

In negotiation, this is called ‘finding common ground’, an important technique to build connection and trust. It builds the psychological contract between you and the other party, resulting in them being more willing to listen with an open mind to your views where you don’t agree with them.

Being precise in describing what you agree on first also helps you reduce the field of potential conflict to just what you disagree on. Too many tough conversations fail because a broad sense of overall disagreement and disconnection exists rather than a precise understanding of the specific issues or items in which there is disagreement. This can cause people to give up altogether or mount greater resistance because they sense just too big a gap exists between each party’s views.

Finally, the ‘agree than disagree’ pattern is much easier for high-warmth oriented individuals to execute on. Those of us who value harmony and acceptance often struggle to advocate their view firmly, especially when they believe that what they are saying is likely to cause conflict or be met with disapproval.

Agree then disagree. It’s a small thing, and it makes all the difference.


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