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Soft Skills for Safety – Disagreeing

Posted by Matt Segal on Feb 24, 2020 9:00:00 AM

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If you want to succeed as a safety leader, it’s not enough to focus solely on logistics and data management – you have to get good at ‘soft skills’ as well.

Soft skills are attributes like communication, teamwork, and problem-solving that enable you to engage with and motivate your researchers to care about safety (they also help in interactions with colleagues and management!).

Without these skills, even the savviest safety professionals will find themselves fighting a losing battle to get their workforce to carry out safety practices.

To help you hone your craft, we’re writing a series of articles each highlighting a different soft skill. Today’s topic is disagreeing.

Talking past one another

Disagreements are normal in any human interaction. We don't always see eye to eye, so we will understandably disagree from time to time. But sometimes, when we think we're disagreeing, we're actually “talking past one another”: a situation where two people talk about different subjects, while believing that they are talking about the same thing.

If you've ever said something like...

  • "Why don't you get it?!"
  • "You're not even listening to me!"
  • "It’s like we’re not speaking the same language!"
  • "That's what I've been saying this whole time!"

...then you've had the joy of experiencing this common phenomenon.

Talking past one another can happen with your partner, a coworker, a client, or even the cashier at the grocery store. By understanding why this happens and following a few simple communication tips, you can save yourself (and those around you) a great deal of frustration.

Why does “talking past one another” happen in the first place?

Like most misunderstandings, talking past one another starts with an assumption that you’re both on the same page (another good reason to practice active listening). It’s one reason this tends to happen more frequently in close relationships, like with your partner or a coworker who you see every day.

As humans, we all view issues through the lens of our own experience. Words can easily be misinterpreted through our own personal filters. So it’s no surprise that we sometimes find ourselves nodding along in agreement while talking about completely different subjects.

There are two different types of talking past one another. The first one happens when two people are using the same words, but assigning them a different meaning. In this situation, you start out thinking you’re on the same page, only to find out you’ve been talking about totally different things.

For example, imagine you fell a few days ago in the parking lot and landed on the curb. You think you might have broken or bruised a rib, so you decide to go to the doctor. When he asks what brings you in today, you tell him you’ve been having some chest pain. Suddenly, you find yourself being hooked up to an EKG machine to see if you’re having a heart attack.

In this scenario, you were both talking about “chest pain”, but those words meant something very different to each of you, and there was never a moment to clarify what you both meant. To avoid it, you could have offered more information about what lead to the chest pain, and the doctor could have asked a few more questions about what may be causing it.

The second type of talking past each other happens when we use different words but intend the same meaning. When this happens, you might think you’re disagreeing, but you’re actually saying the same thing.

For example, imagine you're arguing with your partner about money. You think they spend too much money. Your partner insists that you're pinching pennies and being controlling.

You're both so caught up in making your case that you overlook the fact that you both agree you need to get out of debt and start saving for retirement. Here, the issue stems from the “why” of the matter – if you had both taken a step back and made sure to understand why this is an important issue, you could have started working together and agreeing without all the strife.

Talking past one another can be incredibly frustrating. To avoid it, let’s look at some of the ways you can recognize when this is happening.

Signs you may be talking past one another

By knowing the signs of talking past each other, you’ll be in a better position to prevent miscommunication. Some common indicators include:

  • The conversation is going in circles
  • You’re both repeating yourselves
  • Neither party effectively addresses the other side’s issues or point of view
  • You’re more focused on getting your point across than understanding the other person
  • It seems like you’ve reached a dead end
  • You feel unheard or misunderstood

A good indicator that this is happening is if any of the above examples are particularly unexpected. If part of your reaction is due to the fact that you’re surprised there’s a disagreement, chances are, there may not actually be one.

Ok – so how do you prevent this from happening in the first place, and how do you address it when it occurs?

Tips to avoid talking past one another

The best way to stop talking past one another is to prevent it from happening in the first place. Before you launch into a conversation, it’s always good to ask yourself, “How might my conversation partner receive this?” before saying anything.

Don’t take for granted that you’re both on the same page. Instead, consider where misunderstandings might arise and clearly define what you’re talking about. That’s especially important if you’re tackling a sensitive or tense subject, or one where you’ve disagreed in the past.

As soon as you notice that you’re talking past one another, pause and address it immediately. It’s natural to want to avoid dealing with conflict, but doing so will only make things worse. If you let the conversation continue, you’ll only get further off course (and have an even harder time admitting there’s a fundamental misunderstanding when it does come to light).

Similarly, if you notice that other people are talking past one another, there are some steps you can take to get the conversation back on track. By intervening tactfully, you may be able to prevent a full-blown argument.

First, don’t jump into the conversation too quickly. Make sure you’re not in a highly emotional state – this will only escalate the situation (as mentioned above, conversations about EHS money and budgeting can often elicit these strong feelings). Take some time to listen and understand both sides of the conversation before you interject.

Then, ask if you can make an observation. Statements like, “It sounds like you’re both talking about X – is that right?” or “From what I’m hearing, you’re talking about Y, and you’re talking about Z – am I correct there?” can help people feel heard instead of threatened.

Ask questions without judgment to gather information, uncover potential areas of misunderstanding, diffuse defensive emotions, and help both parties find common ground.

One final note: Know when to step in and when to stay out. In the case of a heated argument between two people you oversee, for example, it may be appropriate for you to intervene. If, however, it’s a dispute between your peers, you’ll need to tread more carefully.

Your takeaway

Dealing with disagreement is never easy, but these tips can make it more manageable. Remember:

  • Often when we think we’re disagreeing with someone, we’re actually “talking past one another.”
  • Instead of making assumptions, listen objectively and try to hear the meaning behind the words. Do your best to be aware of your own subjective filters.
  • Disagreements are inevitable, but learning to handle them effectively can enhance your communication skills and strengthen your interpersonal relationships.

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