Listen to this story
Think back to a recent argument. Now put aside the argument itself and think about the environment that the argument happened within. Was there anything about the environment that encouraged or discouraged different fruit of disagreement to emerge?
What was the power dynamic?
What were the expectations for what had to come out of the argument?
Was there any additional hidden context that influenced the argument without making itself explicitly known (like cultural norms, shared history, the medium of communication it was happening in, the constraints of time, etc.)?
We like to think of our arguments as existing outside the context of time and space, as perfectly rational dissertations that clash and resolve based on their objective merits alone. But the physical space that disagreements occur in actually influences the voices we listen to (whom can we hear?), the dynamics of the conversation (what roles of authority are people playing?), how people participate (who is allowed to speak?), and even who participates (who is allowed in the room?).
When a disagreement sparks in a work context, with your boss, the voice of reason is probably going to speak loudest. There are formalities to disagreement in professional settings. On the other hand, when you’re out with your boss after work and getting a drink, some of that formality can fall away, opening the disagreement up to more contributions from the voice of possibility.
There are three things we should consider about the spaces where disagreements take place:
1. Ideas: Does the space encourage or discourage diverse perspectives from being shared? Which voices are most welcome in this space? Does it have any preference for conflicts of head, heart, or hand?
2. People: Is anyone able to enter and exit this space of their own free will, or are there consequences and/or restrictions in place that limit who can enter and exit?
3. Culture: How are past and present interactions in this space remembered in the future? Are there any biases that favor or disfavor certain participants or ideas?
In a classroom, for instance, there’s a power dynamic between the teacher and the students. The teacher designs the lesson and is in charge of facilitating discussion. Students can ask questions, but they can’t change the agenda of the class directly. If a disagreement occurs, the teacher is usually empowered to encourage it or shut it down.
On social media, there are a number of differently shaped spaces to consider. There’s a post with comments, which isn’t too far removed from a classroom dynamic, except that the cultural norms of a comment thread don’t prevent comments from hijacking the agenda of the post. If a disagreement occurs, the original poster may or may not be able to do much to keep it under control.
Think about the etiquette we follow when entering someone else’s home. Each house can define its own rules, which requires a dance between hosts and guests to initially determine what is permissible and not permissible (inviting others over, taking off shoes, regulating noise levels, and general level of activity and chaos, etc.).
Who is allowed to be in the room or at the table, and what’s your role once you’re there? Can you put a disagreement on the table or only respond to it?
Companies work similarly but have very different norms around visiting offices, applying for jobs, and becoming an employee. If you’re there as an employee, the level of disagreement and self-expression may vary drastically from what’s acceptable during an interview or at a board meeting.
Some of the most important questions we can ask, when designing a neutral zone for a productive disagreement, are, “Who is allowed to be in the room or at the table, and what’s your role once you’re there? Can you put a disagreement on the table or only respond to it? Can you ask open-ended questions, and can you speak for yourself?”
This is especially important when the people at the table are the ones who also get to decide who should be allowed to join the table in the future. A neutral space needs to welcome new participants and provide some form of onboarding for them, so they can introduce themselves and have a chance to acclimate. It should feel more like a party than a manufacturing line.
A space for productive disagreement needs to be neutral on three levels: It must allow different ideas and perspectives to be entertained, so that new ideas and perspectives can be introduced; it must permit people to join and leave the conversation freely as ideas and perspectives evolve; and it must leave room for the space’s character and culture themselves to evolve as it molds itself to the relationships and conversations that have taken place within it.
Physical or not, a neutral space should feel like a relationship or a shared purpose that can stand the test of time. After all, isn’t this exactly what the churches, companies, and institutions that are most meaningful to us really are — inviting, long-lived, neutral spaces that allow people to come and go? When you’re a member of these spaces, you become a part of them and absorb their rituals, scripts, and norms.