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I've had many more phonecons in the past year than usual, and I'm noticing that in meetings with more than a few people, that a person will say that they agree with whomever spoke immediately before them, but they clearly don't actually agree.

People will be respectful and wait their turn; they basically start with something like "I think you're right," or "you're spot-on," or "I couldn't agree more." Then, they either (1) completely contradict the person they just "agreed" with, or (2) hijack the conversation to discuss a totally unrelated issue. In either case, this doesn't seem like agreement to me, but just a form of manipulating the discussion.

I thought that meetings are supposed to be about communicating with a team to get on the same page, address concerns and issues, and solve problems, not as a way to get away with doing what you want while appearing to be supportive.

Is this typical protocol and how meetings are conducted? Should I just say "I agree" with whatever whomever just said, and then do my own thing? Do meetings accomplish more by going this route?

EDIT: For context, this in the US, in the public sector.

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    Could these agreements be partial, with some facts and not refer to the whole of what others have said? – Quora Feans Mar 1 at 13:49

12 Answers 12

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Sometimes it's a cultural thing.

Some people think it is rude to contradict people, even when they disagree. So they prefix their disagreement with supportive statements of agreement because that's the appropriate approach in regards to their cultural context.

Stephen Fry has a piece contrasting US and British dinner parties. If someone at a British dinner party says "Black is White" then the others will say "No, that's not true. Black is obviously Black." At an American dinner party you say "Oh that's very true, I agree so much. But don't you think that in some very real way Black is also Black?"

So in your meeting if someone says "We should use a SQL database", a person with this culture will say "That's a great idea, and I think it would work really well. What we might consider, though is maybe using a NoSQL database which I think might perform better."

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    Do you by any chance have a link to that Stephen Fry piece about dinner parties? – Olorin Mar 2 at 9:31
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    I find this answer especially funny since to me, an Eastern European, Brits are perceived the same way as Brits perceive Americans: as beating around the bush and being too polite. – Davor Mar 2 at 13:35
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    Oh yes. I have a few projects with US partners, and "That's an awesome idea. Let's never talk of this again, shall we?" is a mainstay of all brainstorming sessions. – xLeitix Mar 2 at 16:49
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    As an American who regularly does business in the UK, I find the dinner party example to be completely reversed in reality....Maybe that's just my luck though. – That1Guy Mar 2 at 20:32
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    @That1Guy The reality is that probably everyone does this kind of thing some of the time with some subjects in some contexts, and you don’t even notice it when you do it or someone else does it in keeping with your context, but it stands out when someone does it in ways that aren’t in keeping with your context—leading both sides to think that the other does it way more than appropriate, because they’re only counting the times that they wouldn’t. – KRyan Mar 2 at 21:03
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Agreeing without really agreeing can have a variety of causes.

  • There are just those who just misunderstood what the other person was saying and thought they were agreeing to something else.

  • There are those who are agreeing because they aren't paying attention and need to say something. Been there and done that.

  • There are those who are agreeing because they don't want to be asked to comment anymore and are fine with whatever. Been there and done that.

  • There are those who are using these as filler words while they finish their response in their head. Again, been there and done that.

  • There are those who are agreeing to get an issue finished with so they can talk about their issue.

  • There are those who are agreeing to just get the meeting done faster. Seen plenty of this. The quality of engineering accepted is reduced by length of the meeting.

  • There are those who are agreeing as they want to say something, but do not want to engage in a fight over it, just state their opinion to the person in charge.

  • There are those who just want to speak to seem engaged and useful.

I thought that meetings are supposed to be about communicating with a team to get on the same page, address concerns and issues, and solve problems, not as a way to get away with doing what you want while appearing to be supportive.

People can have a lot of different motives when actually in the meeting, from wanting to get their way to just wanting to get away from it. What you do depends on what you want.

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    Using meaningful statements like "I agree" as "fillers" is just outright silly and dangerous. European here. I guess that shows... It's just objectively bad communication, and either confuses or outright misleads those participating in the conversation. Hiding behind "cultural differences" seems childish to me. But then again, I work in a technical environment, and haven't actually run into these kinds of problems (misunderstandings, yes, obviously, but not those originating in people just saying whatever). – rubenvb Mar 3 at 14:30
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It really depends on the culture that has been created within the company/company unit, end goals, the importance of said topic to the big picture, the perceived rank/skillsets of the people involved in the meeting, and the comfort of the individuals involved with the others around and/or public speaking.

Typically

  • Shy people are going to agree and avoid stirring the pot or draw attention to themselves, especially if they are having to talk with people they don't know or are uncomfortable with
  • If the importance of a topic is low, or administrative, or near irrelevant to a persons part or outside their scope of experience, they're just going to agree
  • If the culture is the leader isn't truly open to other ideas, people are just going to agree
  • Meetings at 7am and 430pm are going to have much less conversation than 10am and 2pm. Most people don't want to talk that early in the day or want to have a long meeting right before leaving.

Sometimes, it takes just one person to speak up and open the gates to a truly productive meeting. This can be you, and if done correctly, can truly open the doors to a great career. This is very nuanced and you don't want to be branded the "Know It All" or the "Always Talking So Much" or the "Combative One" or "Mister Obvious"

Should go something like, "hey everyone, I completely agree with Jim and Kate. From what I have experienced, the roadblocks I have encountered are x and y. What do ya'll think?" or "any best practices you can share?" You positively acknowledge, you share an experience/challenge you have had, give an idea you might have, and then ask what the others think.

The idea is to make people feel validated, comfortable, and engaged while talking about things that actually matter.

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  • Personally I agree that one should be nuanced when expressing their agreement with others since it can create misinterpretations. I always say with what part I agree, before adding to the discussion. Sure, you can say something in the sorts of 'OK, understood' but agreeing while you don't is just lying. – user1841243 Mar 1 at 8:07
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I think I'm guilty of doing this.

For instance, if someone just made a proposal that I mostly disagree with.

Instead of starting my rebuttal by saying, "I disagree, I think we should...", which might completely shut down the other person who just made the proposal.

I will usually try to find a part of the proposal I can agree with and start with that part first, and then, I will talk about the parts that I would like to change.

Of course, this strategy can be taken too far. I'm not advocating that it should be used all the time, only that it be used when there are some points of mutual agreement in a larger proposal that you may disagree with.

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  • Which approach do you prefer to receive? I'd rather have people start with the most fundamental/important parts. Or sometimes it's worth just going straight to the part that you would change if it's not much. – Džuris Mar 1 at 7:28
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    @Džuris, You make a good point, but I rarely think in those terms. In a meeting, I'm usually trying to get a consensus, and a participant who just lost face or who gets too defensive too quickly can derail that. And at times, I may even be meeting with higher-ups or clients, and I may not be allowed to contradict what they say directly. – Stephan Branczyk Mar 1 at 8:16
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    "You make a good point, but I rarely think in those terms" - It's funny how you gave us a very good example right there in the comments. It's far more polite than just saying "I disagree". – Echox Mar 1 at 10:40
  • This approach appears to be a healthy middle ground between the two pitfalls. It's not dishonest, but also doesn't seem combative. The only danger I see here is that you might have a harder time persuading someone of your POV with this strategy. – employee-X Mar 2 at 17:37
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I have recently begun doing this myself this past year as a deliberate strategy to deal with an exceptionally difficult person in a position of authority above me on our organization chart.

I thought that meetings are supposed to be about communicating with a team to get on the same page, address concerns and issues, and solve problems

This is only one model of what a meeting could be about.

Certainly, I like meetings that are about things like that; they tend to be very productive in psychologically safe environments consisting of team-players who are focused on solving problems. Not every meeting has that purpose and not every meeting participant has that focus.

Sometimes, meetings are called so that the organizer can give orders; they think they already know what the issues are and what the solutions are. Such people often have an authoritarian management style. When this sort of authoritarian style is coupled with other cultural or personality traits, the result is that discussion during the meeting can be viewed as disobedience. Nobody who feels entitled to be obeyed likes to be disobeyed, so this can quickly lead to conflict. Other participants in meetings of this type quickly learn to remain silent to avoid provoking this type of person, or work around this weakness.

In my own case, I have started prefacing my disagreements with "I agree with you, [insert name here]" because this is sufficient to assure the difficult person I am dealing with that I would actually be happy to comply with your order, but for this relevant detail that you did not account for. This is usually easy for me because this person is usually is well-intentioned and makes decisions that make sense given what information they have at the time. They just don't realize their complete lack of any soft skills and dictatorial management style mean that they will never have the information to make better decisions in the first place.

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In the uses you describe, it is essentially a formality indicating acknowledgement rather than actual agreement.

It is part of a wide repertoire of modern office verbiage - and like most of these it serves primarily to communicate subtle gradations of tone and mood (e.g. on the spectrums of respect, enthusiasm, hesitation, dismissal, friendship, hostility, talking-up, talking-down, etc). And this is quite important -- a living business isn't just an org chart, it is a social group that has the potential to be greater than the sum of its parts.

Anyway, this usage is not a cause for concern. To answer the question of "should I always do the same thing" -- Sure, but what I'm suggesting is, it's one of those things where the point is not what you say, but how you say it. (relative to the context and personal/formal relationship of the speakers)


You mention the habit of changing the subject / hijacking the discussion. That is more significant, and arguably counterproductive. It should probably be its own question, as it's a pretty rich subject that can stand alone.

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These conversations can be healthier if all involved recognize the difference between disagreeing with an idea and disagreeing with the person who said it.

A healthy culture also expects evidence, rather than expressions of opinion. "You have made some good arguments, but we also have to consider these figures ..."

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Is this typical protocol and how meetings are conducted?

This is very much dependent on company and local culture. I've certainly worked in places where this is the norm--everyone wants to be agreeable. No one wants to stir the pot and risk upsetting or alienating others by being contradictory. I've also seen the opposite extreme, where people go out of their way to contradict, even when their idea isn't all that different from what was already proposed. I think a lot of it comes down to what type of behavior gets reinforced more strongly.

It's important not to confuse just saying "I agree" when you don't agree at all with finding common ground. The latter is a tried and true diplomacy technique that can be very effective at diffusing tension. The idea is to make the person feel validated by letting them know you understand their perspective and the basis for their argument. You can then propose your alternative without coming across as a steemroller. I've used this to great success, especially when dealing with strong type A personalities.

Should I just say "I agree" with whatever whomever just said, and then do my own thing?

This might not always be such a terrible idea. If you know the person is completely misguided and that no amount of explanation will make them come around to your way of thinking, showing them the results could be the only way. Obviously, you should be careful doing this with your manager or anyone with the power to punish you for going behind their back. This can also cause major problems if you have people expecting you to deliver something you agreed to but you wound up doing something else.

Do meetings accomplish more by going this route?

Again, it depends. People talking over one another to get their way is rarely effective dialogue. On the other hand, endless back and forth placation can be a tremendous waste of time. Just because everyone else is doing it doesn't mean you have to join them. I'd say, whenever possible, try and make your arguments as clearly and politely as possible and try to avoid the habit of repeating the same argument in an effort to get people to agree with you.

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You can always use a neutral comment that sounds positive, without necessarily agreeing:

  • Thanks for explaining that, you expressed the point about xyz really well... however...
  • Great input - it's beneficial to everyone here that you explained that... however...
  • Very informative comments, thanks for bringing that up... however...

Then you can continue and state your own view.

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Is this typical protocol and how meetings are conducted?

There is no protocol here. Even if you had a formal moderation, nobody keeps someone from saying stuff that is obviously rhetoric.

Communication is hard. Entire coaching industries exist where people go around and try to teach us how to lead productive conversations. There are so many archetypes of speakers, and only very few of them are conductive to a great meeting. Not to mention the fact that without the body language (and, often, without accompanying video) things can get complicated fast.

While I certainly see how someone (including me) might be annoyed by the tip-toeing around these issues (i.e., correcting someone's mistakes), we have to acknowledge that it is definitely a common trait in people that if someone point blank tells them that they just said something wrong, there is a high chance that they either wall themselves in (shut up), or go into attack mode. Both of which are good ways to quickly end a useful discussion.

So the effect is that people err more on the "tip-toeing" side. Communication coaches will regularly teach that it is a great idea to acknowledge what the other said, to make sure that you understand them, that it's not their fault for not knowing better (don't say that verbatim, of course) and so on. After that, you can try to modify their statement.

For me personally, it depends. If there is any way that I can respond in a way which 100% clearly is not going to annoy them, I will. For example, if they say something that is wrong purely factually because they cannot have the relevant information, I will just jump in and add the information to the discussion. I still won't say "that's wrong because some fact", but "some fact, therefore I think we need to rethink this" or something along those lines. If they say something that's wrong but more of an opinion/preference, then it gets a little complicated, and it will be hard to give an overarching recipe of what to do, without tip-toeing a bit.

Whatever you do, giving a verbatim "you are 100% correct but blabla" is in any case not a good idea and an easy to spot bluff. But something like "I see where you're coming from" or "I agree that it may seem like that" or "that seems plausible, but..." isn't the worst you might do. Depending a lot on convention and culture, of course. In my country (Germany) we are often quite direct and "frontal".

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I agree with a lot of the upvoted answers here. Those are some great reasons that people commonly agree-then-disagree. Sometimes it's cultural, sometimes people are distracted, sometimes the message was missed, some people are just trying to avoid an unnecessary fight, etc. Still, I haven't seen anyone mention a prominent reason for this behavior.

I think that many people doing this are going through the motions of active listening without actually doing it. Someone who is disagreeing productively is:

  • Summarizing the other person's view in their own words
  • Highlighting the parts they agree with
  • Pointing out where they disagree and why

Sometimes it's difficult to do that justice in a big group meeting, but lots of people still manage to do a reasonable job of it. People emulating them, or people who are trying to play the part of a good meeting participant, may be totally missing the point. A sort of cargo cult meeting behavior, if you will.

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These days the prevailing social atmosphere is to avoid conflict, and regard arguments and debate as bad things in and of themselves. I won't speculate on the reasons for this here, but the natural consequence of such conformity is passive-aggressive behavior. Exerting social pressure on people to stop them from disagreeing doesn't automatically make them form a hive mind. They still have the same different opinions, but now that explicitly stating the disagreement is uncool, they find sneakier ways to do it. One of them is to just blanket-"agree" to everything and blithely contradict them anyway, as you observe. Then, it is hard to accuse you of being an arguer because well, you keep saying how much you agree, and the accuser themselves becomes the arguer.

The other sneaky benefit of this is manipulation. If you are skilled enough, you can twist someone else's words to change the meaning, but confuse and trick them into thinking that it's actually the same thing as what they said so they should acquiesce to you. This kind of manipulation is also enabled by an overly-conformist culture.

Like in any other social situation, you have to learn the range of acceptable behavior and choose from that if you want things to go smoothly. In a meeting with die-hard conformists, you won't get away with arguing too many times. Either you'll have to swallow it, or find sneaky ways like this to express your disagreement without breaching prevailing norms.

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