Shallow Disagreements

Stick long enough in context-driven testing, and you will hear the term “shallow agreement” one time or another. A shallow agreement happens when we forget to confirm our understanding regarding a user story before starting to work on it, and find out during the Sprint Review – or worse: later – that the functionality did not meet the expectations of our ProductOwner or end-user. Shallow agreement happens when we find out too late that we seemed to agree on something, but really weren’t. We didn’t check our assumptions, and usually both parties end up being disappointed by each other.

Last year, I realized there is also something like shallow disagreements – and I am not sure whether these are worse than shallow agreements.

What’s a shallow disagreement? With the description of a shallow agreement given in the introduction, a shallow disagreement happens when we seem to disagree, but are not. Shallow disagreements happen when we argue for hours about a particular design, and no one of us used code to clarify that, we find out after implementing the first approach that we had the same picture in mind, but could not get along with each other – for whatever reason.

Shallow disagreements happen if we fight with each other over a matter where each of us theorizes about the objectives of the other party, and never check our assumptions. Shallow disagreements happen when we fight over thoughtleaders’ approaches without diving into their teachings or visiting one of their courses. Shallow disagreements happen when we engage in a twitter fight, and don’t realize that the brevity of 140 characters does not provide us with enough communication bandwidth to get certain points across.

Personally, I think that shallow disagreements drown our energy, since we put so much of it into a fight that does not need to be a fight if only we could stop for a minute, and actively listen to the thoughts of the other. If only we would stop, and open our mind for the point, and try to understand their position. Shallow disagreements happen when we shot down our empathy for the sake of fighting with each other.

But what causes a shallow disagreement? I think it’s not lack of empathy to start with. Virginia Satir’s communication model taught me that it’s a lack of understanding the other party. Schulz von Thun taught me that it’s caused by a difference in argumentation levels. If I argument on the context level, and you only listen on the relationship level, then we are more likely to disagree with each other. Or as one of my colleague put it: if your thinking is no longer constraint by logic, you probably can only be reached by emotional argumentation.

What causes us to argument on different levels? What causes us to listen on different levels? Personally, I think a lack of trust can result in over-listening on the relationship level. Also a low self-esteem can result in being picky about the relation that the other one is trying to enforce on you. If you perceive a threat by the content of the message, you are also likely to react on a different level than the speaker tries to connect to you.

How can we dissolve shallow agreements? We have to ensure that we reach the same level of communication. Non-violent communication achieves that by making sure to address the crucial pieces of a conversation: the self, the other, and the context. The same applies to congruent communication based upon Virginia Satir’s model. Also some kind of empathy is necessary to notice for the individual speaker that he’s currently not reaching the same level as the other is hearing on. With that awareness, I found that I can more easily change my communication style to make sure that I reach the correct level in that other person.

What’s worse? Shallow agreement or shallow disagreement? I am probably biased here, but I find unnecessary fighting is dragging much energy from myself that I could otherwise use to bring value to others. Of course, shallow agreements are terrible. And I think that discussions and agreement are not binary. They are more on a fluent scale. That said, there is a thin line between checking assumptions to avoid shallow agreements, and over-checking assumptions and creating a shallow disagreement. If we miss to reach out to that other person on his or her level, then we are most likely to engage in a energy-drowning shallow disagreement that does not lead to new conclusions.

So, next time, you find yourself in a fight, check whether you have a shallow disagreement by varying your message to reach different levels of listening on the other person. Only if you find an unshallow disagreement, engage in the fight to avoid shallow agreements.

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2 thoughts on “Shallow Disagreements”

  1. The arguing of shallow disagreement may be annoying to you, but I think you are wrong to suggest it has little value. Lots of things are happening when you argue. Your relationship is evolving. It can be dangerous, but it can also create trust, depending on how you handle it.

    You must keep in mind that you can’t know that a disagreement is shallow until you go through your tiring process of hashing it out. If you turn away from that process you risk leaving a big bug in your thinking and big trouble in the team.

    Many times I have heard people moan about how they don’t want to have an argument… but I wonder what they think they have when they don’t argue? I doubt that what they achieve is great work.

    1. Thanks for that comment James. And me replying to your comment probably also acknowledges that fact.

      Based upon Patrick Lencioni’s model in the five dysfunctions of a team, I tend to disagree with disagreement creating trust. According to Lencioni, a lack of trust leads builds the basis for a fear of conflict – and therefore for disagreement, and fighting that out in a respectful way. So, trust builds the basis – according to Lencioni – for a fruitful disagreement.

      Just to make the picture from Lencioni complete, in Lencioni’s model, what creates trust is to overcome the perfection thinking, and fear of failure. That said, I think you add more to a conversation by stating that you might have been wrong, and trying to understand the counter-argument.

      Don’t get me wrong, I like to have arguments. And I like to have them in a constructive manner where idea piles on other ideas, and we can shed light on different perspectives.

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