On Misagreement

The trap of yeah.

On Misagreement

If you mean well, you probably misagree.

I'm surprised people don't talk about it.

I don't mean disagree - disagreements are usually pretty clear. Misagreements are what I call it when two people leave a conversation, both convinced they've agreed, when they haven't. You only see problems later.

Some examples:

  • Colleagues preparing a meeting, each politely suggesting their different approaches, feeling they've landed their point, when they haven't. The meeting? A mess.
  • A group of friends mangle a Thai dinner order, everyone needlessly compromising because of what they think everyone else wants (see: Abilene Paradox). Let's be real: beef massaman or bust.
  • A slightly awkward conversation about money, where the true cost is hazy until you get the bill.

Misagreements don't typically come out of malice. Sometimes there's a language barrier, or lack of context. Other times it's laziness; people without the momentary energetic zing to really express themselves.

But misagreements often just come from the desire to agree. To find common ground even when there is none.

Euphemisms don't help. And statements like "We're saying the same thing" are usually a tell for when it's happening. (After all, if that was really the case, wouldn't it be more obvious?).

Misagreements are fatal in instances where miscommunication has fast, dire consequences: overly polite Korean pilots dealing with brusque JFK air traffic control, mealy-mouthed surgeons and their terrified underlings, inexperienced parachutists who don't like being troublesome. I wonder the role a power dynamic has, and familiarity. Perhaps we misagree more with people we don't know at all, or assume we know too well.

When the stakes are lower, misagreements are just annoying. They temporarily preserve peace, but at the cost of forward momentum. False alignment kills progress.

To really agree you need more than a smile, you have to actually understand one another. Probe and push, hear and see. Be blatant in your wishes, sometimes.

Misagreements might be calm, but they're stagnant.

Being oh-so-polite: our better natures trap us.