The assumption that agreement and disagreement are split fifty-fifty is an example of what statisticians call the naive definition of probability. For almost any topic that comes up in human relationships, agreement and disagreement are not equally likely. Disagreement is the default. If you're managing stakeholders, that may not surprise you! But how and why do we disagree on important topics, and how can we use language to improve our conversations?


As Jonathan Adrian states: "Objecting to someone's opinion does not require a substantial amount of effort or invested capital. Unlike the high price we have to pay when we involve ourselves in physical battles, disagreeing does not put us at risk of inherent harm. The internet has especially made this a lot easier because we get to object without having to face the social consequences that usually come with a public showing of incivility."

As a stakeholder manager, you probably are very aware of this and have those tricky stakeholders to appease either on social media or in your engagements.


So how can we better understand detractors?

One of the best ways is to take a look at the common reasons people disagree. These are typically one of the following:


Different sources.

Everyone has been exposed to different facts about the world, which can naturally lead to disagreement. One may have studied in one area, perhaps the environment, another in politics. Alongside this, their innate values will be different to both yours and other stakeholders.


Definitions

When people are using different definitions, they frequently get into unproductive arguments about those definitions without realizing that they are merely using words differently but meaning the same thing.


Signalling

We are very tribal and some stakeholders may disagree (or claim to disagree) merely to signal information to others, perhaps their understanding, intellect or superiority / power.


Power struggle

Often, there can be a disagreement on any point and the basis is in a struggle for power. Someone feels that being right on a particular issue is very important to maintain their position – perhaps in their job, community or as the 'expert'. A 'rival' opinion can feel like an attack on their status and they may feel being dissuaded – or have seen to be dissuaded – would make it seem that they have 'lost'.

Sometimes all of these types of views will be in one room together – so how can you help? We should all aim for fruitful disagreements, and that certainly involves understanding what the other part is saying but there is a great way to cut to the chase, and a helpful tactic for dealing with illogical sentiments in others is to ask them to clarify their argument. This allows them to reasonably lay down their thoughts from start to end.

Another way is to open up the conversation further and put them in a frame of mind ready to accept new facts after you have listened to their current beliefs. As you may know, people commonly disregard information that contradicts their own beliefs and latch onto the information that supports what they already think.

Try asking 'What information would make you change your mind about this issue?', 'What facts would help you reconsider?', 'Would you be interested in seeing a case study where this has worked?'

Any way that you can get a pre-commitment to a change their mind if the relevant information can be presented to them is a win for them and for you. They keep face by being shown to be reasonable in the face of the facts, and you are allowed a chance to engage them away from hyperbole.

In a world of pervasive disagreement, we should aim at answering all our stakeholders' questions, or at the very least, acknowledging their concerns but be aware that we may not convert everyone to our way of thinking. We should aim for a mutual understanding and be aware when disputes risk being unproductive, and keeping the idea of 'open discussion' can really help bring clarity to situations that would otherwise feel a little tense!