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How to deal with conflicting views

Richard Feynman

"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool." - Richard Feynman

Based on some of my former writing you may expect to find mostly technical articles here. However, I have always been interested in not just content (what) but also in form (how). The latter has led to an interest in business, leadership, and processes. Subjects which in my mind can no longer be completely separated from technical discussions. In this post I will reflect on the question: What do you do when you disagree with someone on e.g., a technical matter? This discussion is based on my personal experiences and views but I think the ideas can, to a large extent, be generalized. I am looking forward to your thoughts and comments. Let me know where there is a flaw in my reasoning, where the logic doesn't apply or any other views you have on the matter.

I think that the most important thing to realize in any discussion is that it is not about winning the argument but about finding the best solution to the problem. This means that you should actively try to understand their viewpoint and arguments and try to make them understand your points. This is because most people are smart and capable individuals that have their views for a good reason. This approach assumes that your goals are aligned, something that is typically true when you are working together. However, even if you are not trying to achieve the same things, I believe this is the right approach as understanding one another can help in identifying a common win-win situation.

To reach this level of understanding, people need to be honest, not just with each other but especially with themselves. As Richard Feynman said, "... you must not fool yourself - and you are the easiest person to fool. ". If you expect the other person to be critical of their position, you should be equally critical of your own arguments and openly admit to your mistakes. Admitting that you are wrong, challenging someone's position or having someone else question your beliefs requires a strong foundation of trust. Trust based on values such as respect for each other, tolerance for disagreements, and freedom of speech. A full discussion on how to establish and maintain a foundation of trust is beyond the scope of this article but in general, it is important to take care of both the emotional and the rational aspects.

The logical follow-up question is of course what to do when it is not possible to reach consensus and a decision needs to be made. In this case, one should fall back on the chain of command. It is important to establish who decides on what subject well before any disagreements arise, typically this is the most senior person. There is, however, a price for falling back on formal leadership. A decision made by decree is typically not as good as one that is the result of finding a consensus. However, any action is typically better than no action at all. A more important consequence is the effect on morale. When people are overruled too often or for the wrong reasons bad things happen. People start to lose faith in the leadership resulting in classical fight or flight behavior. Causing them to focus on winning arguments rather than finding a common solution, they rebel, trying to undermine the leadership or take over. An alternate reaction is where people start avoiding conflicts either because they no longer care or are afraid of repercussions. Eventually, people will start leaving.

To mitigate the impact on trust, it is important to only use executive decisions when external circumstances require it. Once the urgency for the decision has passed it is important to take the time to connect with the people involved and ensure they are heard and understand why a certain approach was taken. As much as I like to avoid current affairs in my writing, I think that the speech (NL / EN) by prime minister Mark Rutte on the Corona crisis is an excellent example of how to deal with the use of executive powers in a crisis. In this speech, he explains the difficulties in making decisions on incomplete information. He also clearly outlines the chosen approach and the rationale behind it while showing that he listens and is aware of the concerns of the people.


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