ValueSpeak
A Weekly Column
By
Joseph Walker

DISAGREEING AGREEABLY

For most of the past seven years, Marc and I have been dueling professionally.

The people for whom I work tend to do things that the people for whom he works question and challenge.  Usually that questioning and challenging is pointed and public, and Marc and I are called upon to strategize responses and counter responses for our respective sides.  Usually our respective bosses take the lead in public debate, but often Marc and I are at the same place at the same time squaring off against each other over ideological lines in the sand.

It isn’t always pleasant.  In fact, it usually isn’t.  The issues with which we are dealing are intensely controversial, and public feeling is often heated on both sides.  Our respective bosses are emotionally and professionally invested in these issues, and their feelings toward the other side can range all the way from mild annoyance to venomous vitriol.  They are usually cordial and controlled in public, but behind the scenes . . . well, that can be quite another story.

So when I was recently given an assignment that would require me to spend a lot of time with Marc working through some difficult and potentially divisive issues together, I was of course . . . how should I say this? . . . Delighted.

Incongruous?  Perhaps.  But Marc is one of those rare people who can look past the things that divide people and concentrate instead on the things that bring people together. So being with him is always a pleasure even if working against him is not.

The first time we met I was ready to hate him.  He was the enemy, the villain, the bad guy, complete with scruffy beard and black hat.  I could almost hear the music from “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly” swell in the background as he walked into the room.  But when he saw me, he smiled broadly and walked directly toward me, extending his hand enthusiastically.

“Hi, I’m Marc!” he said, putting a hand on my shoulder.  For a moment, I was afraid he was going to give me a hug.  “You must be Joe.  I’ve heard great things about you from a lot of different people.  I’m really glad to meet you!”

In my line of work I’m around a lot of PR professionals, and so I have a pretty sensitive internal schmoozometer.  And while I’m sure he was stretching the facts a little with the “great things” schtick, there was absolute sincerity in his smile and his handshake.  He wasn’t working me – he was greeting me. 

We chatted for a few minutes about mutual acquaintances, and then he took the stand to debate one of my bosses in front of a university seminar.  During the debate he was glib, articulate and professional.  He attacked our plan, but he didn’t attack us.  And when it was over we all smiled and shook hands without a trace of animosity or acrimony.

“I can’t stand him,” my boss said as Marc put on his black hat and walked away.  “But I can’t help but like him.”

That is because Marc has learned the fine art of disagreeing agreeably.  Please don’t misunderstand.  Marc is passionate about his work, and he will rip our plans to pieces unmercifully when he finds flaws and mistakes in our work.  But he does it with dignity, class and respect, never stooping to the name-calling, personal put-downs or derisiveness that seem to characterize so much of what passes for public discourse today.  He is an adversary, but he is a civilized adversary.  And that makes me want to behave in a civilized fashion, too.

It is said that the true sign of civility is the knack for telling people to go to blazes in such a way that they look forward to the trip.  My dad had that ability.  And so does my friend/enemy Marc.  It seems to me that the world would be a better place if more of us functioned that way personally and professionally.

 And if you disagree, please do so agreeably.

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— © Joseph Walker

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