Crucial Conversations QA

The ABCs of Reaching Agreement

Dear Crucial Skills,

I’m the team leader of an increasingly dysfunctional team. Our tasks require a high degree of coordination and we often have to figure out what to do as we go. But we’re stuck in a pattern of arguing and disagreeing, and it derails our ability to get anything done.

Lately, our aggressive debates and defensiveness are dragging us down. Members seem to think it’s more important to be right and prove others wrong than it is to get our work done. Can you help?


Dear Despairing,

Sometimes in our teams and relationships, we slip into bad habits. It’s hard to trace how these problems developed, but it’s easy to see the negative and sometimes hurtful outcomes these problems cause.

I consulted with an executive team that seems similar to the team you describe. In one of the first meetings I attended, a director shared his ideas about solving a problem. “I think we ought to do options ‘J,’ ‘K,’ ‘L,’ and ‘M'” he said.

Another director aggressively jumped in, “I disagree!” he said. “We’d be fools to do ‘M,’ we’ve got to do ‘P,’ not ‘M.'” A heated argument ensued.

Afterward, I spoke with the disagreeing director. He agreed with the other director about proceeding with options ‘J,’ ‘K,’ and ‘L.'” It was only option ‘M’ that he disagreed with. Imagine that. He agreed with three fourths of the other’s view, but the first words out of his mouth were, “I disagree!” This is the verbal and emotional equivalent of picking up a shield and drawing a sword. This response almost guarantees a fight. I’ve seen this same mistake made in personal relationships as well.

What’s needed to change your team’s behavior is a focus on purpose and the teammates’ agreement to use a few skills:

Share the facts first. You might say something like this: “I’ve noticed we seem to have more arguments and disagreements that lead to blockages rather than progress. For example . . .” Then share several specific examples that are obvious to everyone.

Propose a Mutual Purpose. “I strongly suggest we all operate toward this Mutual Purpose: We achieve our team results in a respectful, efficient way.”

Define “respectful” as listening to each other, not labeling each other or each others’ ideas, and not interrupting each other. Give specific examples from recent team arguments. Such examples might include words like “stupid,” “unworkable,” and “ridiculous.”

Define “efficient” as letting details pass that are unimportant and not getting “hooked” into arguments or debates that are unproductive. Say, “Each of our comments and responses should take us closer to solving a problem or building a productive option.”

Explain that you shouldn’t expect perfection, but that you should actively make an effort to accomplish your Mutual Purpose.

Share the ABCs of response. These skills help teams create more productive behavioral patterns. Here’s how they work. When someone makes a statement, do not ignore the comment or respond with disagreement. Rather, respond with A, B, or C, as explained below.

The ABCs of Response

A- If you agree, say so. You might simply say, “Mike, I agree with you that . . .” If you agree with some of what was said, respond by identifying what you agree with. Consider the example used earlier of the disagreeing director. Instead of saying “I disagree,” he should have said, “Mike, I agree that we should do ‘J,’ ‘K,’ and ‘L.'”

B- If you agree and want to add to it, build on their idea. “I agree we ought to do ‘J,’ ‘K,’ ‘L,’ and ‘M.’ I also think we should do ‘R.'”

C- If you disagree with what was said, don’t attack, criticize, or disagree. Rather, compare your opinion. This is often best done by first paraphrasing the other person’s idea, then sharing your own. By laying both ideas side-by-side, everyone can compare and contrast the two ideas. For example, “Mike, you think we should do ‘J,’ ‘K,’ ‘L,’ and ‘M.’ Is that right? I think we should do ‘R,’ ‘S,’ ‘T,’ and ‘V.'”

By responding to comments with the ABCs of Response, you acknowledge others’ comments and minimize defensiveness. With ideas out in the open and treated with respect, people can now compare, contrast, and build to get to the best solutions and the most effective decisions. We are now creating a dialogue and using it to get results and strengthen relationships.

Using the skills of creating a Mutual Purpose and the ABCs of Response, the executive team I worked with had what the CEO referred to as “an amazing metamorphosis.” Within three meetings, with the CEO giving gentle reminders, the team became more disciplined and productive. Each team member reported the change as an improvement and said he or she did not want to go back to the former way of doing business.

As your team focuses on results in a way that strengthens relationships, you improve your effectiveness in the dialogue of today and pave the way for improving the dialogue of tomorrow.

All the best,