Alignment vs. Agreement: A New Way to Work with Conflict


When we are in conflict with someone at work, it can feel like we are in a tug-of-war (or worse).  There is our way (which of course, is the right way), and their way (the not-so-right-way).   

When conflict feels like this, in order to move forward, it seems as though there are only two options: win or lose. My way or the highway.  

In teams, we can get stuck feeling like we need to have 100% agreement or full consensus in order to progress.   

And the consequence of these ways of dealing with disagreement is that we lose time and energy spinning our wheels. 

Sound familiar?

What finding alignment can offer

While consensus is often held as the gold standard for decision making (and can be a very powerful tool to use), it’s not always feasible or attainable in all situations.  

Instead of setting consensus or full agreement as the goal, if we instead focus on finding alignment, the goal becomes finding a piece of the situation to align around as a common goal or interest.  

And, as a bonus, when we focus on finding alignment, conflict or disagreement can actually become a creative act that allows both parties to come to a more creative solution than either of party could come up with on their own.

Alignment vs. agreement

Alignment can be defined as “bringing parts into proper relative position; to adjust, to bring into proper relationship or orientation.”   While full consensus or agreement is not always possible when we’re in conflict, there is always something to align around, dependent on how willing both parties are to look for it.  In order to align, you both must be open to some degree of influence from each other.

Successful alignment also doesn’t mean both of you necessarily have to like each other or agree with each other.   For example, you can be in alignment with a co-worker about the need to accomplish a job together, while disliking each other, or disagreeing about the methods.

Instead of having the issue separate you and the other person, looking for alignment allows you to get the problem out in front of the two of you: to act as a team to address the issue together.  Instead of trying to win over the other person to your side of the issue, or staying locked in your own position, alignment can allow both of you to turn your attention and creative energies to what you both are fundamentally interested in underneath your individual positions.  You can pull together, lined up behind a common interest, instead pulling against each other.

Focusing on what you and another person share in any situation, instead of what you don’t, helps lead towards more creative solutions that honor both of you and your ideas.

When you’re next stuck in a conflict, ask yourself these questions:

  • What is the real issue?
  • What do we each really want?
  • Why is it important to resolve this issue?
  • What do we both share as common interests, goals or beliefs?  What is the agenda that is greater than both of us?
  • How can we resolve this as a team?  What concrete action steps can we take together? 

In the Comments below, I’d love to hear your take on finding alignment.  Let me know:

What helps you find alignment and common ground during conflict?  What difference does aligning vs. agreeing make?

Hanna Cooper is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Christina Smith

Great article as usual, Hanna! I always learn something and feel that I can relate to your posts! I’ve had to learn a lot about alignment (and not having to “win”) during this past year in a new role, and it has been good for me. When I learn where the other person is coming from and how he/she views the issue and the priorities, that helps me to align and sometimes (more often than not!) actually AGREE! YAY! Thanks for sharing.

Hanna Cooper

Yay for you, Christina! And thanks for your comment – it’s helpful to hear how what I’m sharing is useful! Hope you’re having a great week!

Brenda Dennis

Great article Hanna. Looking for alignment takes the personal stuff out of it so both parties can focus on the goal. As Christina said, not having to “win” is something that takes some practice but it really helps move the situation along. Thanks!

Hanna Cooper

Great point, Brenda – yes, not taking or making it personal in conflict is a principle of good and effective communication. It does take practice to look for alignment, but it does pay off! Thanks for sharing your insights here too!

Jeffrey Faison

I’m a first time reader of your articles. This article was a great read. My agency has been going through some growing pains, due to recent or not so recent consolidation “merger”. The things that you have suggested are outstanding starting points. In my situation, all of the decision makers and my counterparts are hundreds of miles away. I would say they lack people skills, but I have not been able to find any common grounds to start from. I will continue to use your examples as a way to minimize the space in my new working environment. Thanks for sharing and I will continue to read your articles.

Hanna Cooper

Thanks so much, Jeffrey, for weighing in and sharing your experiences here too. Distance and working virtually can make finding common ground more difficult, but finding even small ways of getting to know each other can be really helpful. Good luck with these big transitions, and look forward to hearing more from you here too!

Denise Traicoff

When I read the title of the post I thought to myself “Harumph, this is something I already do because I learned it from Hannah Cooper!” Then lo & behold I saw the author! So glad that there is a forum for others to benefit from your wisdom & experience. And even more glad to learn that you are a featured blogger; I will definitely keep an eye out for your posts!

Hanna Cooper

Hey Denise! So nice to see you here! Your post made me laugh out loud – thanks for the kind words! Yes, do check back – I’m here as a guest blogger until mid-October. Hope you are doing well!