Agreeably Disagreeing aka How to Handle Conflicts

Crystal Williams-Brown

The world is colored by a variety of personalities. It is wonderful in its diversity. However, this means that disagreements due to differing perspectives are bound to happen. It’s unavoidable but not insurmountable, as I realized fully during my years of working in customer service. I hope to now share some of what I have learned so that others can overcome it and even improve on my methods.

Step 1: Get on the same page

Like a mountain, a disagreement does not arise from nothing. It has a progression, a starting point, something smaller than the disagreement itself. So I backtrack to see where level ground started to diverge. “Where did our perspectives shift?”


While working in a Medicare Part D call center, I had customers often call in regarding a “sudden” large increase in the amount they needed to pay for medication. As you can imagine, they were very upset, scared, and distressed by this. They thought there was some terrible error.

I soon realized that this was not an error and that the customers didn’t fully know the details of their coverage. There was a coverage gap where their insurance would stop paying for their medications and the customers would have to pay the total price. Some knew of the existence of the gap but not how they reached it. The gap is reached after a certain amount is paid for a medication, so they were calculating their own medication payments to judge how close they were to the gap. However, the plan was using their insurance company’s payments to calculate the progress made towards reaching the gap.

With this divergence point now clear, I made sure callers understood the coverage gap as well as found them alternative options for getting their medication without the hefty price tag, such as checking if their state had any programs for prescription coverage and if the manufacturers of their medication had any assistance programs.

By backtracking and clarifying each party’s understanding of events/conversations, it’s possible to find that you don’t actually disagree. In this case, it wasn’t so much that the user was wrong, it was that their plan details had not been communicated to them in a way that helped foster complete understanding. Now that clarification took place, we could work on moving towards the same goal: getting them the medication they need at a price they could afford.

It could be language differences, cultural differences, and bevy of other factors that lead to divergence. It’s best to verify base assumptions first to ensure everyone is on the same page.

Important Note: Do not blame anyone. Finger-pointing does not help. Focus instead on how to move forward.

If things aren’t resolved by clarification, it’s time to move to step 2.

Step 2: Switch Perspectives

This is almost an extension of step 1 in that it focuses on understanding each other. Our goal now is to look at the circumstance from the other person’s point of view.

Storytime (Again):

When I learned about debates in high school, I fell in love with them. My favorite way to debate was to take a viewpoint different from my own and advocate on its behalf. I did this because I felt that if I could convince myself of something I didn’t originally believe, I could also convince others. I would then follow up the pro argument with a con one, pointing out the shortcomings. This equipped me with insight into different perspectives. And it made me much more empathetic.

I wanted to be sure whomever I was talking to felt heard and respected. I wanted to see the situation from their eyes and didn’t jump to arguing against them. I collected the costs and benefits of their stance during this, building a deeper understanding of the nuances of the discussion. You read me right, discussion. This step helps transform a disagreement into a discussion.

Which brings us to step 3.

Step 3: Advocate for the Neutral Good

The name isn’t flashy but neutral is a wonder-worker. This is perhaps the most vital thing to keep in mind when disagreeing. There are no sides in a healthy collaboration. We are working towards a shared goal that we can only achieve together. No one is right or wrong. We are seeking the best together, discussing what that means and how to achieve it. Rather than a disagreement, it’s a weighing of options to find the one that works the most neutrally.

Here are a few actions you can take to help your discussion reach a resolution:

  • Gather facts/data points, for all ideas raised (remember it’s neutral). Do this together if you can, it will help foster the sense of collaboration. Write out the logistics/overhead needed for each idea as well as the long term benefits.
  • Test run ideas in a smaller harmless form, a minimum viable product version. Sometimes it takes seeing something to realize its viability.
  • Get peer feedback, in a neutral way. It’s best to leave out who’s idea is whose.
  • Decide if this is really a point worth arguing. If there isn’t a big loss in letting go of your stance in this case, feel free to let it go. Pick your battles wisely.

My mom told me something as a kid that stuck with me “You don’t have to win an argument by getting the last word. You can win by letting the argument end.” I’m paraphrasing this, since I no longer remember the exact words, but I feel the sentiment remains intact. Basically, it’s not about being right, it’s about resolving the disagreement.