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Book Club

8 Ways to Flip Your Fear of Conflict

How to stop being scared of disagreements and make them productive.

In the past, 99U has tackled arguments by digging into how to safely bring sparring into shoptalk and mediation into meetings. But, here’s the thing: it’s 2019. Disagreement is our reality. We have increasingly divisive elections, impending family Thanksgiving dinner, and let’s not forget that we still can’t agree on what we want the future of work to look like. So, if disagreements are a part of our fabric right now, let’s acknowledge the reality, wade in, and figure out how to disagree productively.

Unspoken arguments are like cockroaches—they live forever in our heads, where we refine and relive them long past their expiration date. But, what if, instead of dead-ends, disagreements were doorways? What if they weren’t about self-protection and judgement, but rather tools to find unexplored territories, new mental models, and broader realizations?

Buster Benson, head of the unofficial Disagreement Appreciation Society and former product lead at companies like Slack, Amazon, and (you guessed it) Twitter, believes that the ability to have productive disagreements is a meta skill. Actually, he calls it a superpower. With his new book, Why Are We Yelling: the Art of Productive Disagreement, Benson aims for everyone to find growth and connection in a situation where we usually feel anxious and squashed.

It all sounds pretty good to us. So, we pulled eight lessons from Benson’s book to help unearth the deeper roots of disagreement. From making sure you’re having the same argument, to reading the map of your anxiety, here’s how to turn your tug of war dynamic into something worthwhile.


1. Align your argument (with the other person).

Have you ever been in a disagreement and thought, “This person just doesn’t get it”? Here’s the thing: that might be true. Even if they understand the scope of the fight, it’s highly possible that they don’t realize why it matters so much to you—important information to make sure you both understand the stakes of the conversation. Step back and ask yourself whether this argument is about something true (what we can verify), meaningful (what matters to you), or useful (what situation we’re in). And make sure the other person is having the same kind of argument you are.

2. Seismograph yourself.

Anxiety spikes are like the needle of an earthquake monitor—they mark the places where something you care about feels threatened. These spikes are the moments when a disagreement starts to feel personal. They can easily lead to unproductive positions like self-protection and judgement.

“Boiling a disagreement down to information fails to acknowledge the emotional conversation staring you in the face and likely leaves it simmering for later.”

Use those spikes as signposts guiding you to a wiser version of yourself. Resist the urge to shut down and, instead, dig into why these spots are so important that they’re worth protecting.

3. Only speak for yourself.

Conversations go haywire when we move beyond our own personal experience and speak on behalf of other people and groups. Don’t do it. Not only will you exaggerate, oversimplify, and stereotype, you’ll make your position in the disagreement vulnerable. It is almost impossible to contest someone when they speak to their own experience. But when they speak for others, anyone can dive in and argue back. If someone else’s experience is relevant enough to bring into this conversation, do the legwork to get their voice involved.

4. A rush to resolution leaves the roots in.

A trap that can send a conversation spiraling out of the realm of productivity is when we shy away from big questions like “This clearly matters to you, can you help me understand why?” and instead focus on the facts.

“Conversations go haywire when we move beyond our own personal experience and speak on behalf of other people and groups.”

That can feel particularly crummy because boiling a disagreement down to information fails to acknowledge the emotional conversation staring you in the face and likely leaves it simmering for later. Take the time to ask open-ended questions that try to find the roots of the argument. Resist the urge to resolve without investigation.

5. Look for ghosts.

Let’s say, for a moment, that ghosts may exist. Pause, and with this new mystic mindset, do you find that brushes of air have new meaning and the creak down the hall new potential? More importantly, would you have noticed the wind or the sound if you hadn’t been open to paranormal possibilities? To Benson, accepting ghosts is the mindset we need to bring to arguments—one that allows people to turn off the clinical brain that want to get to knowable answers quickly, and instead, step outside the grooves of our mental models, see the world from someone else’s perspective, and notice things you might otherwise have blocked out or overlooked.

6. Don’t be married to the cal invite.

All of our biases point us to the familiar and easy. They want us to find an answer quickly so we can get out of the discomfort zone of new ideas. Thinking, after all, is hard. To actually find the growth and new perspectives that come out of a productive disagreement, release yourself from anything that would encourage your time-efficient biases to kick in. Set a ridiculously long calendar hold or say up front that this is going to be a multi-part conversation and schedule the next time block. That way, your shortcut biases can take a back seat.

7. Change the venue.

Environment sets the tone for a disagreement. Make sure that yours is neutral. What are the power dynamics of the space? Are all voices welcome? Can anyone leave at any time? Is it okay to change your mind in this space? If your regular workspace can’t accommodate, head out for a walk around the block. If that’s not possible, pick up the phone. Whatever you do, don’t do it over Slack or email.

8. Aim for aporia.

Aporia is my new favorite place. It’s the ancient Greek concept of realizing that what you thought was a path to the truth doesn’t actually lead there at all. We’re trained that winning a conflict feels good. But Benson says there’s an even better feeling out there. Pulling in a little Socrates to back him up, Benson says that the goal of these big, deep conversations that help us grow and connect isn’t to come to a right answer. It’s to realize the moments when we don’t know what we’re talking about. That may not sound like winning, but it sure sounds like wisdom.

More Posts by Emily Ludolph

Emily Ludolph is a director at West Wing Writers. She has published in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Artsy, Airmail, Eye on Design, JSTOR Daily, Quartz, Narratively, TED Online and Design Observer. 

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