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Fostering Healthy Disagreements for Healthcare Leaders

Workplace disagreements commonly occur in healthcare settings, where stakes often are high, but healthcare leaders can develop skills to disagree respectfully and achieve conflict resolution through collaboration.

“The disagreement in and of itself is not a problem,” said Justin Hale, principal consultant with Crucial Learning in Provo, Utah, which offers leadership training courses and materials. “Often disagreements can be a good thing.”

For instance, when two people bring different perspectives to workplace disagreements, they should aim to share perspectives, find common ground, expand the options and come to a new solution that both parties can agree about.

Finding resolution is crucial. Conflict in the healthcare setting can adversely affect patient care and relationships with colleagues and other members of the healthcare team.  

“Opposing views are not the problem; the bigger problem is how people handle that,” Hale said.

How workplace disagreements escalate

When people hold different views, they tend to go into a defensive, self-preservation mode, Hale explained. They see the situation as two people being on different sides of an issue, and they try to protect their perspective.

The body may go into “fight or flight” mode. The higher reasoning sections of the brain shut down. The person focuses on the short-term protection, being right and “winning”—rather than on the patient. The topic does not predict the fear causing the reaction; that comes from their “stories” about the conversation. Crucial Learning defines stories as “our rationale for what’s going on and our own interpretation of the facts.”

“Decision-making gets much, much worse,” Hale explained. “That’s why disagreements are such a difficult thing. In healthcare, the larger purpose is to care for patients.”

Clinicians genuinely care about patients. But they may switch the focus to “winning” the disagreement.

The American Management Association reports that effective conflict resolution strategies can reduce stress, improve employee retention and foster better relationships in the workplace. While individuals will react differently to conflict, doing the hard work of hearing others’ perspectives and learning to disagree respectfully can result in better outcomes and increased job satisfaction.

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4 tips to successfully resolve conflicts

Hale offers several suggestions for conflict resolution of workplace disagreements, including the easy “fact, story, ask” model for sharing perspectives.  

  1. Focus on what you really want and the long-term intent. Keep in mind what is desirable for the patient, the relationship, staff and others involved in the disagreement. “What are the long-term motives?” Hale said. “Reminding yourself of your motives will help you stay focused on those motives even when you disagree.”
  2. Master your stories. Humanize the other person in the disagreement. Think about why a reasonable, rational person might come to a different conclusion about the situation. By hearing them out, it could expand your understanding and lead to successful conflict resolution.
  3. Emphasize commonality, not differences. “It makes the disagreement more respectful, the disagreement more productive,” Hale said. “I find it is easier to respect people who have things in common with me.”
  4. Ask the other person why they want the position he or she holds and what the facts are. “Ask questions to help you understand why they have the opinion they have,” Hale advised. “You often find you want the same thing.” Ask about the other person’s research and what led to taking that position. Discuss and share the facts, what can be verified or observed, and each other’s objectives. “Disagreeing without being disagreeable is much easier when you realize the other person shares the same goals.”


How to inspire respect and innovation

Healthcare leaders should strive to create the largest pool of shared meaning. Push out anything that might prevent people from sharing all possible options. Create psychological safety, so both people’s opinions are respected and valued and will not be dismissed.

Ask questions to invite differences and more opinions. Inquire how other people see the situation and how their experiences influence their perspectives.  

“That pool of shared meaning gets larger and larger,” Hale said.

That leads to a free exchange of ideas and can inspire innovation.

“What inevitably happens is that people make better decisions, find alternative options they had not thought about,” Hale said. “There is more unity, because they were heard and considered.”

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