Disagreement as an opportunity to learn

The effective decision-maker does not start out with the assumption that one proposed course of action is right and that all others must be wrong. Nor does he start out with the assumption “I am right and he is wrong.” He starts out with the commitment to find out why people disagree.

Peter Drucker’s classic book Management was published in 1973, so please excuse the all male references. The point he makes is what speaks to me.

Drucker argues that the proper reaction in the face of disagreement is to try to understand why we disagree, and to start from the assumption – until proven otherwise – that the other person is not vicious or stupid. We should assume, Drucker writes, that the other person has reached the conclusion because he or she “sees a different reality and is concerned with a different problem.”

In other words, much disagreement is because we do not actually share a definition of the problem. We do not all agree what the basic and underlying problem is. No wonder that we cannot reach a shared solution.

Many of our discussion in the UMC surely fit Drucker’s description. We jump to solutions, but have failed to agree on the actual problem. For instance, someone please explain to me our shared understanding of the problem represented by 40+ years of declining membership numbers. Or, explain to me our understanding of the problem that our average clergy age is rising.

What is actually going on in these two cases? What is the cause of these numbers? How do we know? How can we test our opinions about the nature of the problem?

We may not be structured well as a church to have these kinds of discussions. That itself may be a sign of a significant problem. It may indicate a need to have serious discussions about whether our denominational structure is itself a problem.

I am struck by how much of our debate and conversation and programming seems to be driven by rival visions of the correct solution without much shared understanding of the underlying problem. To the extent that is true, Drucker’s observation would be a helpful one to remember.