Being excited about disagreement

Chatting with colleagues this week, I am recognizing that it might be useful to talk here about disagreement. I used to hate disagreement. I would get tense and have this pain around my neck anytime I sensed a situation where people–even not including me–are disagreeing. Early in my career, I even prided myself in being someone who navigated skillfully around disagreements, a disagreement traceur of sorts.

Somewhere along the way, this whole thing shifted. I find that I am excited by disagreement. Not in the “ooh, people are fighting, let’s grab popcorn and enjoy their misery” sense. Not even in the “alright, finally we’re getting this out in the open!” sense — though that might be part of it. My excitement about disagreement comes from the understanding that we all construct our own realities, and though we might believe that we all see the same thing, we rarely do. Our experiences are path-dependent, and it’s frankly a miracle that we agree on anything. From this perspective, disagreement is a discovery of a difference in this understanding of reality, a beacon pointing at an opportunity to learn from these differences, to add more depth to my understanding of reality.

When two TLs are having a heated argument in the comments of a doc, there’s something really interesting happening. They clearly both see something that the other can’t see, some valuable experiences that tell them they’re right. There’s a difference in mental models that’s just waiting to be discovered.

If you’ve worked with me, you’ve seen me use “Here’s what I am hearing. <insert my best understanding of the perspective>. Did I get that right?” technique. It may seem silly, but it helps to communicate that at that moment, I just want to understand what you’re seeing. Not interpret it, not pass judgement on it. I am happy that you’re seeing something different. It’s like a lonely eye finally found another eye — hey, let’s try seeing in stereo! I heard it really adds depth! If I am able to let go of my perspective juuust a little bit, something new is revealed.

Sometimes it’s technical insight. Sometimes a hidden organizational tension. Sometimes, an underlying personal pain. In every case, my understanding of the world becomes richer, more nuanced. And that’s hard not to get excited about.

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