Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 8, Issue 2;   January 9, 2008: Towards More Gracious Disagreement

Towards More Gracious Disagreement

by

We spend a sizable chunk of time correcting each other. Some believe that we win points by being right, or lose points by being wrong, but nobody seems to know who keeps the official score. Here are some thoughts to help you kick the habit.
Roger Boisjoly of Morton Thiokol, who tried to halt the launch of Challenger in 1986

Roger Boisjoly, the Morton Thiokol engineer who, in 1985, one year before the catastrophic failure of the Space Shuttle Challenger, wrote a memorandum outlining the safety risks of cold-weather launches. He successfully raised the issue then, and many times subsequently, including the evening prior to the launch. In 1988, he was awarded the Prize for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, for "…his exemplary and repeated efforts to fulfill his professional responsibilities as an engineer by alerting others to life-threatening design problems of the Challenger space shuttle and for steadfastly recommending against the tragic launch of January 1986."

Certainly Mr. Boisjoly felt the imperative to correct what was happening. Sometimes, our efforts to correct group decisions are successful. But even when our attempts seem to fail, having tried at all can be important. To its great credit, NASA commissioned extensive studies of the incident, including the response to Mr. Boisjoly's warnings. Those studies led to advances in our understanding of organizational behavior, and to this day they provide a model of how organizations can respond to and learn from failure. Photo courtesy the Online Ethics Center at the National Academy of Engineering.

Someone recently corrected my pronunciation of schism. I had said shism, and I was corrected to skism, which I accepted without retort. Looking at a dictionary the next day, I learned that both are acceptable in U.S. English, but both are less acceptable than sizm. (See Merriam-Webster.com.) I also learned from this exercise that my corrector didn't actually know what he was talking about.

That was a minor incident, but it reminded me that correcting the words or meaning of another can be a perilous proposition. Here are some of the risks of correcting others.

  • Too much alacrity suggests an agenda beyond simple correction. It suggests anger, insecurity, revenge, or something even darker.
  • Too much confidence puts you at risk of appearing arrogant.
  • A mistaken correction risks making you look foolish — if not immediately, later.
  • Even if you're right, you risk offending the person you corrected, or offending others, which can create or exacerbate tension in the group.
  • Correcting something irrelevant to the conversation can deflect the group from its intended focus.

Probably you can think of half a dozen more risks if you spend an hour at it.

And there are oodles of ways to offer your views abrasively. When you hear someone use one of these, take cover, because something bad could be about to happen:

  • You're wrong (mistaken, misinformed, …)
  • The right answer is X
  • That's not so; that's old information
  • I used to think so, too (before I achieved my current state of enlightenment)

Sometimes, the urge to correct can be overwhelming. And sometimes, correction is actually called for. Here are some tips for offering your own views in ways that limit the risks.

Check for necessity and effectiveness
Is correction really necessary? Will correction advance the conversation in a material way? Generally, unless you're responding to a prior request, it doesn't pay to correct others' grammar, diction, pronunciation, tact, or manners.
Acknowledge your own fallibility
Acknowledge that you could be mistaken. For instance, "I remember that a little differently — I thought it went this way, …."
Make details optional
Ask yourself, "Is correction
really necessary? Will correction
advance the conversation
in a material way?"
For even more safety, give the person or the group a choice: "I remember that discussion a bit differently — if that would be helpful."
Acknowledge your own subjectivity
"I disagree," is mostly a statement about your own thoughts; "You're wrong," is mostly a judgment about what the other has said, or what you believe the other said. The former is a little safer because it's information about yourself.

Most important, when you offer an alternative view, or a correction, in whatever form, look first for potholes. Leading the group in the wrong direction can be hazardous to all, especially to the one who led them there. Go to top Top  Next issue: Making Meaning  Next Issue

101 Tips for Effective MeetingsDo you spend your days scurrying from meeting to meeting? Do you ever wonder if all these meetings are really necessary? (They aren't) Or whether there isn't some better way to get this work done? (There is) Read 101 Tips for Effective Meetings to learn how to make meetings much more productive and less stressful — and a lot more rare. Order Now!

For more about differences and disagreements, see "Appreciate Differences," Point Lookout for March 14, 2001; "When You Think They've Made Up Their Minds," Point Lookout for May 21, 2003; "Blind Agendas," Point Lookout for September 2, 2009; and "Is the Question "How?" or "Whether?"," Point Lookout for August 31, 2011.

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenZLkFdSHmlHvCaSsuner@ChacbnsTPttsdDaRAswloCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

Wildflowers in the Grand Mesa Uncompahgre and Gunnison National ForestsRenewal
Renewal is a time to step out of your usual routine and re-energize. We find renewal in weekends, vacations, days off, even in a special evening or hour in the midst of our usual pattern. Renewal provides perspective. It's a climb to the mountaintop to see if we're heading in the right direction.
PizzaCritical Thinking and Midnight Pizza
When we notice patterns or coincidences, we draw conclusions about things we can't or didn't directly observe. Sometimes the conclusions are right, and sometimes not. When they're not, organizations, careers, and people can suffer. To be right more often, we must master critical thinking.
A sleeping dogRecovering Time: I
Where do the days go? How can it be that we spend eight, ten, or twelve hours at work each day and get so little done? To recover time, limit the fragmentation of your day. Here are some tips for structuring your working day in larger chunks.
Benjamin FranklinProblem-Solving Ambassadors
In dispersed teams, we often hold meetings to which we send delegations to work out issues of mutual interest. These working sessions are a mix of problem solving and negotiation. People who are masters of both are problem-solving ambassadors, and they're especially valuable to dispersed or global teams.
A hospital patientCongruent Decision Making: II
Decision makers who rely on incomplete or biased information are more likely to make decisions that don't fit the reality of their organizations. Here's Part II of a framework for making decisions that fit.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness, Effective Meetings and Effective Communication at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Tuckman's stages of group developmentComing December 7: Reaching Agreements in Technological Contexts
Reaching consensus in technological contexts presents special challenges. Problems can arise from interactions between the technological elements of the issue at hand, and the social dynamics of the group addressing that issue. Here are three examples. Available here and by RSS on December 7.
An actual straw manAnd on December 14: Straw Man Variants
The straw man fallacy is a famous rhetorical fallacy. Using it distorts debate and can lead groups to reach faulty conclusions. It's ad readily recognized, but it has some variants that are more difficult to spot. When unnoticed, trouble looms. Available here and by RSS on December 14.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenZLkFdSHmlHvCaSsuner@ChacbnsTPttsdDaRAswloCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.