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Dealing with Disagreement

Let’s admit the facts: as much as we want to believe we are making progress in working together as a more-connected-than-ever global village, we don’t do the “getting along” part very well. The news of the past year seems to constantly remind us of that as if poking at a fresh wound over and over. Arguing over masks, vaccines? Politics? Spreading, debating, or squashing misinformation? The heightened emotions and inherent global tensions of our pandemic era seem to only exacerbate our problems.

Sorry to disappoint but I won’t be positing solutions to this gargantuan challenge. Rather what I want to highlight is this non-profound corollary: tech isn’t immune to these very same relational issues. Nor is our industry immune to the same ill effects happening more broadly thanks to enduring (and then enduring some more) a global pandemic: isolation, frustration, mental health challenges, anxiety, and burnout to name a few.

In the midst of this most of us have attempted to keep moving forward. Some have figured out life in the “home office” (a.k.a. spare bedroom), usually vying for space within an entire family of new online nomads. Many of us have seen opportunity to head in a new direction and started new jobs. Some companies have recognized the need to temper the pace and are providing extra benefits, days off, and mental heath support for employees. And, let’s be honest, most of us are hoping we can at least retain our sanity and livelihood long enough to get back to some “new normal” whatever that may be.

Atop this undercurrent many of us work collaboratively with participants across the industry and, sometimes, across the globe. In the “before times” this collaboration often included face to face time: conferences, meetups, or just ad hoc gatherings where our communities could work and think together. In the absence of that experience—now approaching the two year mark for many—I am not alone in noticing that this has impacted our ability to work well together. We laud advancements in video conferencing, ogle over the latest new home networking infrastructure some have built, we like tweets of fancy new WFH setups, but no technical solution has replaced the critical need we have to see a person as, well, a real flesh and blood person. With that reality of presence comes the ability to treat them accordingly: as a fellow human. Now more often than not our humanity is veiled through the pixelated screen and our voices are replaced by keyboards. The person on the other side of the issue becomes less human, and when opinions diverge we are now directing our words and efforts against “that dumb idea” or “that competing vendor’s agenda.” The human is no longer visible and our behavior can easily follow, now choosing dehumanizing expressions and responses that only fan the flames.

So, what can we do? We’ve known for a long time that relational challenges—people problems—easily trump even the most thorny technical issues when it comes to complexity. Yet we still spend a lot of our focus and effort on solving, well, technical issues. I’m going to suggest that we all take time to think through the following list and make it a priority to do some introspection regarding areas we can personally improve. While it can be easy to read a list and think of all the other people we know who need improvement, the focus needs to be inward first.

Examine your biases. A recent tweet asked people to consider why they accept certain people’s statements at face value and not others. It’s a great test and challenging thought exercise.

Don’t prejudge feedback based on the source. This is potentially a more specific version of the first item. All too often in multi-vendor spaces where the (cringy?) word “coopetition” is used there can be a temptation to assume a person’s viewpoint is driven by vendor politics. If you are working with competitors on a collaborative underpinning (a standard, an open source core project) you need to find a way to take off your vendor hat to discuss differing opinions.

Find where you agree. It can be a great exercise (and tension diffuser) to find some common ground and express it clearly. “I agree with your point about X. Maybe we can start from there.”

Find out where you truly differ. Related to finding where you agree, sometimes the visible disagreement is masking a core disagreement. Try spending enough time to peel the onion to find if there is a more important, core issue to resolve together.

Learn from someone who doesn’t think like you. This can be difficult but rewarding. With all the talk about DEI I think many times we are still missing the real value of diverse insights. Why? Because a lot of our communities have unconsciously enforced group-think or even a lack of awareness that we are not truly open to new voices and ideas.

Ask someone you trust for feedback. It can be very useful to invite someone not “overheated” with emotion or not as invested as yourself in the conflict or disagreement to provide feedback. Give them enough details/references to make their own assessment but be careful to not bias them towards your viewpoint if at all possible.

We all know there is no simple reductive answer to Rodney King’scan’t we all just get along,” but hopefully with some introspection and humility we can improve the way we deal with others with whom we disagree.

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