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Most of us, at some point in life, will encounter a disagreement we find to be utterly unacceptable. Certain behaviors, ideologies or policies grind too much against what we know to be correct or fair. Emotions flare. Conversations get heated. Anyone who has experienced such a situation knows this is not the most productive or beneficial way to deal with differences of perspective.
The truth of problem-solving is that there are an unlimited number of perspectives to take, which means we can only ever have an incomplete picture of how to do anything right. I may not agree with it, but I can accept that not everyone will agree with me and that those perspectives can be equally valid. The bigger the differences, the more we might need to listen or explain ourselves, building awareness and empathy. Still, once we find where our interests align, we can both move forward in the best possible way for our mutual benefit.
Here are the three steps to get there:
1. Accept different interpretations of the same object
From multiple perspectives, the same object can look very different. If I were to show you a pen, for example, you may either see a point if you are looking at the pen straight on or a line if you are viewing it from the side. No one perspective is necessarily right or wrong — they all exist. I should respect the validity of those opinions equally and without bias. In that physical space, there are no limits to the potential angles for viewing and uncovering another unconsidered perspective. In the same way, our individual experiences lead us to evaluate people, objects and events from a particular perspective, and the possible differences in those perspectives are limitless.
Of course, we as humans are limited: Our scope of understanding can only extend so far, which means our understanding will always be incomplete. Accepting that incompleteness allows me to respect the equality of each person’s perspective in contributing to a more complete picture, no higher nor lower than my own or that of anyone else. From there, I can put myself in the position of their experiences. I may still not agree, but my awareness of what they see from that position allows me to better empathize with their perspective rather than fight or invalidate it.
2. Find areas of alignment
When the alignment of perspectives breaks, we encounter conflict. If we all stood in one spot and viewed an art installation piece, we may all agree on its appearance, but one person viewing the installation from another perspective may disagree with us and contradict our understanding. To successfully communicate about that same object, I need to understand the conditions that formed someone else’s image and how it correlates to my perspective.
This correlation could range from nearly aligned to way off base; the degree of difference depends on the sum of our prior experiences. Physical differences in locations as well as figurative differences — the talker versus the listener; the customer versus the service provider — can shape the lens through which we see the world. To see from someone else’s point of view and understand what makes them think that way, we need to change seats — physically speaking, like with an art installation piece, we can get up and change our position; figuratively, we might need to put ourselves into someone else’s shoes to empathize with their position.
I may have to share my prior experience and lead them to see what I see. They might have to do the same. We can ask questions about how those experiences determined our perspectives, building awareness around where we might see things differently. While there is no perfect correlation, finding any correlation between our perceptions of the image space and the object space is where we find agreement.
Related: 7 Steps for Keeping Conflict Healthy
3. Remember your purpose
At the end of the day, terms like “unacceptable” or “acceptable” are based on my own criteria. If the behavior is nothing illegal or unethical, and I still find it unacceptable, the question becomes, “Why?” My reason should reflect the purpose I intend to serve.
Just like Mark Ronson suggests in his book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, we choose what we consider to be acceptable or not and when to allow that conflict to exist in place of agreement. When we encounter conflict, rather than persuade the other party that our opinion is right, our best first step is to determine if a problem exists that needs to be solved. As perspectives clash, accepting the purpose we ultimately need to serve makes it easier to take the next best steps. Not every difference in opinion necessitates resolution; sometimes, different viewpoints can coexist harmoniously.
If we determine that a genuine problem exists, the next step is to transition from a state of opposition to one of cooperation. By aligning ourselves towards a shared purpose, we can begin the process of collectively addressing and resolving the underlying issue. This shift from adversarial stances to collaborative problem-solving empowers us to harness the full potential of our disagreements, transforming them into opportunities for growth, innovation and improved understanding.
When collaborating with others, I always try to remember that their success can be my success, and vice versa. Aligning our perspectives sets us up to better align our interests so we can work as partners to move forward rather than fighting against each other for what we want. As entrepreneurs, we will inevitably encounter a difference of opinions as we navigate the day-to-day life of running a business. However, we can learn to put aside ideological differences and come together to align around a shared purpose, driving different goals within that scope so both parties can benefit.
From personal to professional problems and every conflict in between, this approach is universal — when we confront differences of perspective looking for alignment, we can empathize with anyone and have more productive and mutually beneficial communication.