All too often, I learn of a disagreement that has been brewing for a long time, where everyone is tired and frustrated and tensions are high. I ask why it wasn’t escalated sooner and hear “it hadn’t gotten to that point yet.” I think many people think of escalation as a last resort; a ripcord to be pulled only when every other option has been exhausted.

I ask you to accept three propositions:

  1. Disagreements are no single person’s problem, they are everyone’s problem.
  2. Reasonable people can reasonably disagree.
  3. It is better to work together on a reasonable idea than to pull in opposite directions searching for the ideal one.

The core idea is that both sides of a debate must work together to truly understand each others’ viewpoint, to take responsibility for driving the debate to closure, and to fully commit to the decision. This is a different mental model of escalation than most people have. You’re not escalating against someone, you’re escalating together to get clarity on how to proceed.

Sometimes it’s easy to see that things aren’t going to converge quickly. Your goals are obviously not aligned, or relative priorities are not even close. You understand each others’ positions but you can’t agree on which way to go, so you’re stuck. Resist the temptation to go on a long journey of negotiation. Escalate together: “We need help getting unstuck.”

This doesn’t mean that every initial disagreement should be sent up the chain. It’s worth spending a little time on figuring out what you disagree on and why, which will help an escalation go smoothly.

In my experience, the vast majority of debates on direction are actually hidden disagreements on the destination. People debate and debate until finally they realize they are actually trying to do different things. Skip this step and go straight to double-checking the goals and assumptions. If you don’t agree on the goals, you’re not going to agree on the direction. Escalate together: “We need help understanding which of these goals should take precedence.”

If you find that you do agree on the goals, then you probably disagree on the approach. Now it’s time to make sure you actually understand each others’ point of view. The litmus test is being able to accurately describe the opposing position in your own words. If you still disagree, escalate together: “We need help on selecting an approach so that we can move forward.”

Once you understand each other and the crux of your disagreement, escalate quickly and then disagree and commit. It’s better to end the discussion and get back to work than to drag things out trying to bring someone around to your point of view. Give it one try, and then escalate — together.