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

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.

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!

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The quality of the output of brainstorming sessions is notoriously variable. One source of variation is the enthusiasm of contributors. Here's Part I of a set of nine phenomena that can limit contributions to brainstorm sessions. Available here and by RSS on January 31.

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