The Inevitable Disagreement

Constructive consensus-building strategies for people with different perspectives

by Christine M. Anderson-Cook

Disagreements in the workplace or elsewhere are inevitable, particularly when several individuals must make decisions. Differences in opinions at the water cooler have much less impact compared to a team needing to unite to determine what action to take.

While debate and conflict are sometimes unavoidable, there are some strategies that I have found that can help enable constructive progress toward consensus and resolution. One just needs to look at the current U.S. political climate to see how easily differences can lead to gridlock and the inability to move forward productively.

A productive path forward

First, I think it is helpful to consider what is at the heart of disagreements because this perspective can be helpful when trying to move past them constructively. One source of conflict is people may be operating based on different information. Often when preliminary choices are made, they are based on incomplete information. Different people may prefer different options based on the information they have available. With more complete knowledge, however, opinions might change.

The second quite different source of disagreement stems from our backgrounds, experiences and priorities. Most decisions involve balancing different criteria and evaluating which tradeoff feels best when we can’t get everything we want. In rare (does this ever happen?) situations in which there is only a single objective, finding the best choice is rarely controversial. We are good at optimizing based on a single metric. The problem is that most often we must simultaneously consider quality, cost, time and risk. Even when having the same information, if we prioritize the criteria differently, different choices can be preferred.

Based on these contributors to disagreements, here are a few ideas about how to establish a productive path forward when faced with disagreement on a decision-making team:

  1. Establish the ground rules. Before trying to make choices between alternatives, it is helpful to discuss what the goals and priorities are in the decision. It is less contentious to provide a forum for people to say what is important to them and why, than to have these conversations when particular alternatives are under consideration and people have become entrenched with their opinions.

    As writer Robert Tew said, "Don’t judge someone’s choices without first knowing their reasons."1 Often, our criteria and priorities for a decision are self-evident to us, but hidden from others. My husband and I sometimes have discussions in which we both think the choice is completely obvious, but each have a different choice in mind. So itemizing and articulating the different criteria to consider when making the decision can build empathy and understanding of alternative opinions. At the heart of the define-measure-reduce-combine-select process2 is the idea to decide on what basis the choices will be made before starting to make specific choices.
  2. Quantify characteristics of choices and share the data. After a set of criteria has been identified, it’s important to select a (hopefully) quantitative metric that summarizes each criterion. A good metric is one that matches the intent of the criterion and for which there are available data. Remember that establishing the ground rules is all about making sure people understand what is important to each person and having some basis for comparing alternatives. When the team has the same complete set of information, the focus can shift from disagreements about the facts to differences in how those facts are interpreted.

    So far, this column has not had a direct connection to statistics. But the quantification of metrics—and driving the process and discussions toward having a strong data-centric emphasis—not only makes for better decisions, but also fosters more constructive discussions.
  3. Distinguish between "right and wrong" and "different preferences." This is a most fundamental mistake that often derails productive discussions and turns conflicts into personally threatening ones. No one likes to be told they are wrong, and it is all too common to say that someone is wrong when, in fact, we actually mean that we have different priorities.

    If we are car shopping, for example, there is a right and a wrong answer about whether one car is more expensive than another (look at the price tags and see the results). There is no right or wrong, however, if someone values reliability more highly than initial cost or if they prioritize legroom over trunk space.

    Predicated on the initial discussions to establish the ground rules, it is much easier to establish a tone that is summarized by saying, "I can see how we ended up with different choices because our priorities are different." It becomes easier to disagree and discuss those differences if we acknowledge that each person has a legitimate position. That is not inconsistent with the fact that, based on our experiences and priorities, we value different aspects of the decision in different ways. Uncoupling the different criteria and understanding them separately provides an opportunity for better understanding.3
  4. Visualize and compare trade-offs between choices. Based on discussions to this point, it is likely emerging that each person involved in the decision has different priorities that potentially result in different best choices for them. The key to making progress toward consensus is to identify ways to find common ground in which each person finds a solution that is viable given their priorities. A Pareto front4 can help eliminate noncontenders (like a lower quality, more expensive item) from further consideration based on the mutually agreed-on criteria.

    Graphical tools, such as tradeoff and mixture plots,5 show how the improvement of one metric leads to sacrifice of others and identify which choices are more robust to different prioritizations of the criteria. Looking at the choices in this way makes it clear that everyone will not be able to get everything that they want, but also will highlight the potentially palatable alternatives. The goal is to find a compromise choice on which everyone can reach consensus.

Patience and due process

Disagreements and difficult choices in decision making are not going to disappear from the fabric of our work and personal lives. But with some structure and intentional choices to make discussions and decisions revolve around data, while honoring different priorities of the criteria considered, there are opportunities to reach consensus and concentrate on making the right choice.

Conflict—when focused on the best interests of the business—can elevate performance, author Patrick Lencioni wrote.6 The key is to handle disagreements in a way that recognizes how individuals prioritized the criteria and allows all participants to be included and heard. With patience and due process, there are strategies that can help people with different perspectives reach a mutually acceptable and ideal choice.


  1. Goodreads, "Robert Tew > Quotes,"www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/13848712.Robert_Tew.
  2. Christine M. Anderson-Cook and Lu Lu, "Much-Needed Structure: A New 5-Step Decision-Making Process Helps You Evaluate, Balance Competing Objectives," Quality Progress, October 2015, pp. 42-50.
  3. Christine M. Anderson-Cook and Lu Lu, "Divide and Conquer: Understanding Trade-offs by Studying Separate Relationships," Quality Progress, October 2014, pp. 46-48.
  4. Lu Lu, Christine M. Anderson-Cook and Timothy J. Robinson, "Optimization of Designed Experiments Based on Multiple Criteria Utilizing a Pareto Frontier," Technometrics, 2011, Vol. 53, No. 4, pp. 353-365.
  5. Christine M. Anderson-Cook and Lu Lu, "Weighing Your Options: Decision Making With the Pareto-front Approach," Quality Progress, October 2012, pp. 50-52.
  6. Patrick Lencioni, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Jossey-Bass, 2002.

Christine M. Anderson-Cook is a research scientist in the Statistical Sciences Group at Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, NM. She earned a doctorate in statistics from the University of Waterloo in Ontario. Anderson-Cook is a fellow of ASQ and the American Statistical Association.

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