Recently I was conferring with a client who said to me, “You don’t really like confrontation, do you?”
Well, no, I don’t. Like many people, I will do a lot to avoid confrontation of any sort.
In my youth I learned that if I couldn’t get what I needed by raw persuasion or simple niceness, I could negotiate or barter. Both of those are good, valuable skills, often in demand. But there are limitations to their effectiveness. Some of the best ideas result from the willingness to begin in a psychically painful place of conflict — those inherently confrontational points where what we know collides with what we don’t want to know.
So I often go out of my way to avoid disagreement, searching for the win-win that means no one has to feel like a loser. But the truth is that if no idea loses, no idea, including the best one, can win.
For our own good, that means we have to face off against our unwillingness to confront. We have to face off against the idea that simple disagreements are a zero-sum game, with a winner and a loser. How do we do that?
To start, we can draw some finer and more-nuanced distinctions. My daughter recently solicited my opinion on something. I gave it to her, and she immediately disagreed. “Why did you ask, if you weren’t going to listen?” I replied, using a favorite phrase of mothers everywhere. “I did listen,” she explained. “I just didn’t agree.” Such distinctions can help disagreement become less disagreeable.
In The Right Fight, Saj-nicole Joni offers a framework for deciding which disagreements can be productive. The criteria are that you’re fighting over something that genuinely matters, that it’s something one of the combatants has the power to change, and that you’re following clear rules of engagement. In these situations, entering the fray simply means that we care enough to risk the discomfort of conflict for the greater good.
Drawing these sorts of distinctions can help us change how think about conflict and recognize that such discomfort — such dissonance — has value. My background is originally in music, as a pianist; in music, dissonance often is the source of beauty. Music critic Anthony Tommasini,writing on the long evolution of Western music, remarked, “If the composer and the listener would just let go of major and minor moorings, we could all revel in the daring and intense beauty of dissonance.”
Tommasini also notes that Brahms’s now-beloved First Symphony was described in 1w883 as “full of irritant and restless discords.” What has changed? Not the music. It’s us. We evolved from rejecting the symphony — which on first hearing was unfamiliar, foreign, and even distasteful — to appreciating it.
We all love our comfortable ideas; we cling to our opinionated moorings as if for survival. But being able to truly hear the contrary ideas of others without complaint or affront facilitates success and enriches life. We may even find ourselves agreeable to things we initially found disagreeable — if we dare to give ourselves and others a chance.
This post originally published at Harvard Business Review