When it comes to disagreeing with people, Matthew Welch the CEO of Auburn Volkswagen in Seattle, US, has a powerful approach. He calls it being ‘open palmed’. Matthew explains that when he is meeting with someone who he is trying to resolve a disagreement with, he approaches it opened palmed. He clenches his fists with all the frustration he is feeling, and then opens his hands, palms up, to release the tension. He then goes into the meeting with an open heart and an open mind to finding a resolution. A simple example of disagreeing well…
The exercise of opening your palms is easily done, but it’s only significant if you are genuinely opening your heart and your mind to resolution. When there is disagreement in a relationship there is hurt and pain that is felt by one party if not both. That hurt and pain makes it really difficult to be open palmed. In fact, it creates exactly the opposite reaction, and generally makes us closed.
Being closed is a protection mechanism to try and prevent us from experiencing more hurt and pain than we already have. It is a survival technique and act of self-preservation. Different people express being closed in different ways. There are typically three reactions: flee, fight or freeze.
Flee is when someone closes down by running from the situation and avoiding engagement with the issue. This normally starts with an emotional withdrawal, but can quickly lead to a physical withdrawal. People may change the conversation, walk out of the room or drive off in their car (which can be rather dangerous).
Fight is when someone closes down by refusing to see the situation from the other person’s perspective. This shows itself in a lack of empathy and willingness to put themselves in the shoes of the other person. The fight is normally expressed in verbal disagreement and arguing, although in extreme cases people can lash out physically.
Freeze is when a person closes down by disengaging. Nothing is said or done until they decide on their next course of action which could be to flee, fight or something else, they freeze.
I really don’t like conflict so my instinct is to try and avoid it. If, however, I get caught up in a disagreement, I tend to fight. I can remember disagreeing badly with someone in a restaurant who I thought was out of order. I just wouldn’t back down, which is something I’m ashamed about, rather than proud of.
The open palms method is a ‘face up to it approach’. It’s about acknowledging and accepting that there is a disagreement. Then it’s about raising that with the other party, or parties, in a way that encourages them to face it, rather than flee, fight or freeze, which might be their default approach.
Very few people actually enjoy conflict. If, however, you can release the tension and hurt that you may be feeling and approach the disagreement with open palms, you may be surprised by the outcome. Personally, I find the thought of facing up to a disagreement is always worse than the reality of it. This encourages me to lean into the person I’m disagreeing with, and face it rather than flee, fight or freeze.