Stick long enough in context-driven testing, and you will hear the term “shallow agreement” one time or another. A shallow agreement happens when we forget to confirm our understanding regarding a user story before starting to work on it, and find out during the Sprint Review – or worse: later – that the functionality did not meet the expectations of our ProductOwner or end-user. Shallow agreement happens when we find out too late that we seemed to agree on something, but really weren’t. We didn’t check our assumptions, and usually both parties end up being disappointed by each other.

Last year, I realized there is also something like shallow disagreements – and I am not sure whether these are worse than shallow agreements.

What’s a shallow disagreement? With the description of a shallow agreement given in the introduction, a shallow disagreement happens when we seem to disagree, but are not. Shallow disagreements happen when we argue for hours about a particular design, and no one of us used code to clarify that, we find out after implementing the first approach that we had the same picture in mind, but could not get along with each other – for whatever reason.

Shallow disagreements happen if we fight with each other over a matter where each of us theorizes about the objectives of the other party, and never check our assumptions. Shallow disagreements happen when we fight over thoughtleaders’ approaches without diving into their teachings or visiting one of their courses. Shallow disagreements happen when we engage in a twitter fight, and don’t realize that the brevity of 140 characters does not provide us with enough communication bandwidth to get certain points across.

Personally, I think that shallow disagreements drown our energy, since we put so much of it into a fight that does not need to be a fight if only we could stop for a minute, and actively listen to the thoughts of the other. If only we would stop, and open our mind for the point, and try to understand their position. Shallow disagreements happen when we shot down our empathy for the sake of fighting with each other.

But what causes a shallow disagreement? I think it’s not lack of empathy to start with. Virginia Satir’s communication model taught me that it’s a lack of understanding the other party. Schulz von Thun taught me that it’s caused by a difference in argumentation levels. If I argument on the context level, and you only listen on the relationship level, then we are more likely to disagree with each other. Or as one of my colleague put it: if your thinking is no longer constraint by logic, you probably can only be reached by emotional argumentation.

What causes us to argument on different levels? What causes us to listen on different levels? Personally, I think a lack of trust can result in over-listening on the relationship level. Also a low self-esteem can result in being picky about the relation that the other one is trying to enforce on you. If you perceive a threat by the content of the message, you are also likely to react on a different level than the speaker tries to connect to you.

How can we dissolve shallow agreements? We have to ensure that we reach the same level of communication. Non-violent communication achieves that by making sure to address the crucial pieces of a conversation: the self, the other, and the context. The same applies to congruent communication based upon Virginia Satir’s model. Also some kind of empathy is necessary to notice for the individual speaker that he’s currently not reaching the same level as the other is hearing on. With that awareness, I found that I can more easily change my communication style to make sure that I reach the correct level in that other person.

What’s worse? Shallow agreement or shallow disagreement? I am probably biased here, but I find unnecessary fighting is dragging much energy from myself that I could otherwise use to bring value to others. Of course, shallow agreements are terrible. And I think that discussions and agreement are not binary. They are more on a fluent scale. That said, there is a thin line between checking assumptions to avoid shallow agreements, and over-checking assumptions and creating a shallow disagreement. If we miss to reach out to that other person on his or her level, then we are most likely to engage in a energy-drowning shallow disagreement that does not lead to new conclusions.

So, next time, you find yourself in a fight, check whether you have a shallow disagreement by varying your message to reach different levels of listening on the other person. Only if you find an unshallow disagreement, engage in the fight to avoid shallow agreements.

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