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Disagreements and arguments can be either a source of frustration and anger, or a source of growth and understanding. Poorly navigated disagreements can create animosity and distance between all parties involved. On the other hand, a disagreement can actually help move the organization forward and bring everyone involved closer together.

How can you turn a destructive disagreement into a constructive one? Mindfulness is the key.

Disagreements Are Essential for Growth

Researchers have found that a lack of disagreements is actually a huge red flag in organizations. An often cited example is in the medical field. In hospitals where nurses are afraid to point out mistakes made by doctors, avoidable mistakes happen far more frequently. Surgeons end up performing the wrong procedure on patients, because the culture in the organization forbade nurses from speaking up.

More efficient—and safer—hospitals cultivate an atmosphere where nurses are encouraged to point out any concerns they have before a procedure. In fact, in these hospitals, the whole operating team gets together before any procedure to walk through the process and to walk through any potential problems. Hospitals who manage to cultivate a culture of open dialogue often find their medical mistakes rates drop dramatically.

Destructive Disagreements vs. Constructive Disagreements

A destructive disagreement is one that’s based on emotion. It might be one person lashing out at another, one person being defensive towards the other, one person exerting power over another, or any number of other reactive situations. The core driver of the conversation is emotional.

A constructive disagreement on the other hand is based on a foundation of shared values. You both care about the same thing, and are disagreeing over the specific method of getting there. The nurse and the doctor both care about the patient’s health, but the nurse has a concern about the procedure. The CEO and the CFO both want the best for the company, but the CFO has concerns about how the books are kept. The writer and the editor both want the piece to be the best it can be, but the editor is insisting on a top to bottom rewrite.

All of these examples stem from a foundation of a shared goal, even if both participants have lost sight of that. The key to changing conversations from destructive to constructive is to move from focusing on the reactive emotions in the conversation to focusing on the shared values in the conversation.

Mindfully Moving Towards Constructive Disagreements

So, if you’re having a disagreement with someone, how do you mindfully steer that disagreement in a more constructive direction?

  1. Take a break

    . Getting distance will help you calm your emotions and be able to get more perspective.

  2. Examine your emotions.

    What are you feeling? What emotions are you experiencing? Which parts of you are feeling reactive? Look below the surface. Is any part of you feeling hurt, disregarded or undervalued?

  3. Listen to what they’re saying verbally.

    Acknowledge any emotions you might be experiencing as you listen, but don’t let them get in the way of really hearing what they’re saying. Mindfulness practice really helps with this. Just being aware of your emotions removes much of the power they have over you. You’ll start driving the conversation from a place of values instead of reactiveness.

  4. Listen to what’s unsaid.

    Understand where they’re coming from. Try to feel out what emotions they’re experiencing in the disagreement, and try to understand why they’re having that reaction. What concerns haven’t been aired? What’s causing the tension in the conversation?

  5. Look below the emotions and re-focus on the values they share with you.

    Mentally focus on your shared values and then verbally acknowledge it. Acknowledge that you both want the same thing. Talk through any of the disagreements you’ve had, but approach it as if you’re on the same side of the table instead of on opposite ends.

Mindfulness allows you to bring yourself out of a reactive or emotional state. Use mindfulness to return yourself to emotional equilibrium. As you become less reactive, others will also. Once the heated emotions start to diffuse, you can focus your attention on the content of the issue, with a foundation of shared values.