In her TED Talk, Margaret Heffernan, author and former CEO of five businesses, asks, "Do we get good at conflict?" She says that becoming good at conflict allows us to become creative and to solve problems. And now a new study says that just being around disagreements makes us better people all around.
According to recent research, people who are exposed to others who disagree with their views are more likely to let go of preconceived biases. The study, “Benefiting from Disagreement: Counterarguing Reduces Prechoice Bias in Information Evaluation,” was published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.
Granted, there’s been a lot on which to disagree in 2017, from net neutrality to the GOP’s bill overall, the most significant overhaul of the United States' tax system Americans have witnessed in decades. It’s basically inevitable that you and at least one coworker won’t see eye to eye and, even if you don’t think politics belong in the workplace, they will always find their way in. But that’s all well and good, this research suggests, because it makes you a more open-minded person in the long run.
So while you don’t support the new tax bill because you live in a state that pays high property taxes, your coworker who commutes to work and owns a home elsewhere will probably dispute you on it… and the confrontation could be as enlightening as it is exasperating.
Of course, workplace disagreements also aren’t always so apparent. Organizations hold meetings for the sole purpose of bringing employees together to engage each other in discussion. If you don’t offer your opinions or feedback — which usually includes whether or not you agree on an idea or proposition — you are not part of the discussion, and you’re attendance is rendered essentially futile.
Most of us tend to avoid people — whether it be family or colleagues — with opposing views because we don’t want them to try and potentially succeed to turn us, according to Virginia Tech’s assistant professor at the Pamplin College of Business Anne-Sophie Chaxel. But “mere exposure to disagreement” is valuable because, even if it doesn’t alter our views in any way, it ultimately changes the way we process information.
Chaxel explains that as humans, we have an innate need for “cognitive consistency,” which means that we tend to process information in ways that confirm our preset beliefs. “Usually we think we are objective when we make decisions, but we are very subjective,” she said. “People unconsciously distort information to confirm their pre-existing beliefs.”
That said, Chaxel found that it’s possible to activate a mindset that leads people to question their own assumptions — her team of researchers actually disrupted the cognitive consistency thinking process. They did this by asking participants to write down their reasons for agreeing or disagreeing with preset statements. Those who had written refuting statements were likely to be influenced by their existing bias, and the act of exposing oneself to beliefs that were different than their own helped counteract biased tendencies.
It's no secret that disagreements could be a healthy antidote for biases that plague all workplaces. The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, for example, encourages teachers to share insights about their practice with one another and learn from each other’s differences and differences of opinions.
“Adversarial relationships take many forms in schools,” writer Roland S. Barth points out on the organization’s page. “Sometimes they are blatant: The 7th grade algebra teacher on one side of the hall lobs a metaphorical hand grenade into the classroom of the 8th grade geometry teacher on the other side, saying to parents, ‘You don't want your child in that classroom. All they do is fool around with blocks.’ Reciprocal unfriendly fire is returned: ‘You don't want your child in that classroom; it's a grim, joyless place with desks in rows and endless worksheets.’”
Barth explains that educators become one another’s adversaries by withholding insights about their practice, “about discipline, parental involvement, staff development, child development, leadership and curriculum.” He says that these insights offer value to improving schools and argues that, if educators would disclose their knowledge to one another, they’d transform schools overnight. But they’re reluctant to do so because they’re in constant competition with each other.
When a teacher does indeed muster up the courage and generosity of spirit to share an important learning, a common response from fellow teachers is, "Big deal. What's she after, a promotion?" Barth explains. "Regrettably, as a profession, we do not place much value on our craft knowledge or on those who share it.”
If all professionals, including our educators, shared their opinions and knowledge, whether colleagues agreed or not, colleagues would expand their minds and grow both as human beings and as professionals.
AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at HerReport.org by night.