Making space to disagree

Meg Douglas Howie
7 min readJun 27, 2020
Poster — full text at end of post
GDS introvert’s network poster. The full text is at the end of this post.

If everyone had the same ideas about everything, we’d be in a bad place. Exposure to diverse perspectives is so important; it makes us better people and it makes our work better.

This doesn’t mean it’s easy. At work, when there are differences of opinion in a workshop or meeting, it can sometimes feel like progress is stalled or subverted — it’s draining. This makes it tempting to avoid those situations by limiting the people involved in making decisions or pushing quickly through discussions.

However, we should think critically about what we mean by ‘making progress’. It’s tempting to believe that progress is linear, but it’s not and it doesn’t happen without investing time in exploration and building relationships. I’ve found the outcomes of efficient feeling meetings where we arrive tidily at a decision tend not to last.

The same happens when there isn’t time to reach agreement. People raise objections; discussion hastily moves on to the next agenda item and everyone is grudgingly silent at the end when the outcome is agreed. Like off-brand post-it notes, decisions come unstuck when the meeting is over.

There’s another reason that working well with diverse perspectives is so important: it’s often really hard to be the person with that different opinion. When teams are working well, we use our different experiences and perspectives to reach the best outcome together. But sometimes it feels unsafe to challenge. Will I be listened to? Will someone shut me down?

As Dean Vipond pointed out in his post about building diverse design teams, the cost of offering a divergent opinion can be even higher for people who are underrepresented in other ways. The impact of this is that it all gets too tiring and people disengage or leave. We need to increase (and then maintain) the diversity of our design community, so it’s important that we get this right.

So how do we create environments that are inclusive and productive? I’ve been lucky to work with people who are really thoughtful about this, and the rest of this blog post gives some tips that I’ve seen or used which have been helpful when facilitating in group situations.

Make time for diverging opinions

Often we cut short discussions because we think there isn’t time to keep talking about things. If you are planning a meeting or workshop and you know there will be significant differences of opinion in an area, double the time you plan to spend on it.

Set expectations and boundaries

If someone has something they want to raise, the chances are it’s going to be on their mind throughout the meeting. Sometimes people jump in and say their piece at the first opportunity because they want to get it off their chest, or keep repeating their point throughout. As a facilitator, this can feel like the meeting is being derailed.

To help with this, if I know someone has something they’ll want to raise, I make sure it’s clear where this will fit in the agenda or workshop plan. I chat to people about the agenda beforehand and check that they’re comfortable it covers what they need it to. Recapping the agenda at the start of the meeting and asking everyone if there’s anything they need to add helps reassure people there’s going to be space for their thing, as well as putting some boundaries around how much of the session is spent on it.

Use structures that help people come together

It’s very rare that people actually have irreconcilable differences of opinion, even if people say things that sound that way. Often we come at things from different places and then end up reaching common ground somewhere in the middle.

Framing the discussion in ways that unpack nuance helps with this because it shifts the conversation away from any one person trying to propose or defend the ‘right’ answer. A matrix is great for doing this because it’s not binary. For example, I often plot things onto a grid with axes for likelihood and impact. When we do this we ask, “Is this thing more or less likely than this one, and would the impact be higher or lower?” The process gives us room for discussion and we arrive at the answers together without anyone saying, “I think this idea is best”.

grid with post it notes clustered around high impact, high likelihood, text says ‘nuance lives here’
A drawing of how we’d plot post-it notes on a matrix

Plotting things on a whiteboard or wall has the added benefit of diffusing a situation by directing any heated opinions at the stuff on the wall rather than the people in the room.

Another approach I’ve used is getting people to rank things alone or in pairs, and then for the whole group to compare their results. We discuss the areas where there is divergence, which means we focus on the rich bits. This is good for setting the expectation that we will have different opinions and then uncovering what they are.

Expose divergent opinions without putting people in uncomfortable situations

Getting people to work in pairs or small groups is a way for different perspectives to come through naturally without people having to speak up against more dominant voices.

It can take bravery to disagree. If people do speak up with a different perspective, acknowledge their point by writing it down or repeating it. As facilitators we’re not neutral bystanders. Minimising what someone says by moving swiftly on can be just as discouraging as openly disagreeing with them.

If you’re concerned that someone is feeling the strain of being that person who doesn’t agree, one-to-one conversations can be important. Talking to people beforehand means that, if they’re comfortable with it, you can raise issues on behalf of others.

Give people time to process

The speak now or forever hold your peace-style of consensus building can be pretty uncomfortable, especially if the decision is one that people have not had time to process in their own way. I try to share agendas and materials at least one to two days before meetings, so that people know what will be covered in group sessions and can get the context they need to engage with it.

If a decision is reached in a meeting but it feels unresolved, give people the opportunity to contribute in other ways after the session, by email or one-to-one for example. If making changes to ways of working, agree to revisit the decision after some time to check how it’s going.

Move things on, responsibly

We have to make time for diverging opinions and messy, circular discussions if we want to do good work and have great teams. There are also times where you do need to move things on. As facilitators, we should be responsible about this, and recognise the power we have to influence outcomes.

To keep things moving it can help to lower the stakes. For example, agree on a hypothesis to test instead of trying to make a final decision. It’s a way of moving forward while acknowledging we have more to learn, as it’s easier to agree to test an approach than to agree that an approach is definitely the right one to take. The challenge is to make sure that you and the group are committed to testing that idea with integrity.

There’s always more to learn

When I wrote the first version of this post, I was grappling with how to hold onto inclusive ways of working I’d learned from product teams in the new environment of a programme leadership team at Government Digital Service. Many of these approaches are the default for multi-disciplinary teams where everyone has a role to play, but they can suddenly drop away when you become ‘management’.

Since then (in the long tradition of sitting on draft blog posts), I’ve moved to Snook, my first role out of the public sector in agency-land. Now, the direct relationship between time and money is giving me the new challenge of defending the value of spending time on this stuff — both to others and to myself. Intuitively I know it’s right, but now working with tight budgets it feels like there’s a direct trade off between talking things through and getting on with deliverables. Reading these characteristics of white supremacy culture bolstered my resolve — sense of urgency and fear of open conflict are both in there.

There’s still lots for me to learn in this space, and I’m loving having the chance to work in an organisation and with clients who are thinking about this in many different ways. For anyone whose job involves helping groups work together, our ability to create space for diverse perspectives is a core skill, and we should practise it wherever we are working.

Other things to read

Are your meetings inclusive?

Provide a clear agenda or purpose in advance

Give people time to think

Make sure everyone has a chance to speak

Don’t put people on the spot

Don’t talk over people

Let people contribute before and afterwards

Does this need to be done in person?

Does everyone have to be here?

I would love to add more resources here from other perspectives — please share in the comments if you have more to add to the list.



Meg Douglas Howie

For people and the planet, equity-minded design at Te Whatu Ora. She / her / ia