How to Disagree with People at Work

Frank and fearless exchanges of views about entertainment, public personalities and the best place for a lunchtime sandwich are fun and stimulating.

On the other hand, disagreements about practice and policy, decisions and projections and similar kinds of work-based stuff are trickier to handle, whether they involve your colleagues or your boss. Here are some tips on how to handle contentious matters.

Check your response

When your instinct is to shout out against something, resist the urge to disagree straight away. Ask yourself a few questions:

  • What exactly am I disagreeing with? Is it the whole suggestion, or part of it?
  • What would be my reason for speaking up? Are my objections related to harmful or negative effects? Can I specify them?
  • Would I disagree if someone different were making the proposal?
  • Do I just want to have a pop at someone? (because of being fed up, tired, hungover etc)
  • Do I have any hidden agendas in relation to this topic?

Assess the risks to yourself

Disagreeing involves courage. By making your feelings and opinions known, you are exposing where you stand. You might feel that you are putting yourself in the line for personal attacks or insults. Perhaps you fear being classed as a trouble-maker.

You are probably overestimating the risk involved. You might be falsely equating the level of risk with the level of courage it takes you to speak up.

By choosing your words and approach carefully, and by making your motives clear, you can minimise the likelihood of being misunderstood.

With thoughtful preparation, you can enhance rather than damage your reputation and the value of your contribution.

Assess the risks to the other person

By disagreeing with someone, you call their judgement into question.

On the whole, disagreements and differences of opinion are so much part of day-to-day communication that we take them in our stride, usually because there isn’t much at stake.

But when it comes to public policy and decision-making, colleagues who are questioned or challenged have more to lose. They risk losing face. They might feel they are being made to look stupid. No matter how high or how low the person’s status, they might fear they are being undermined.

Be empathetic to the other’s position. See the issue from their perspective. Without diluting your message, adjust your approach to suit the person and the circumstances. No one likes to feel they are being attacked, or that they are being brought down a peg or two.

Choose your battles

Just because you think you have right on your side doesn’t mean you should always enter the fray. Ask yourself if it is worth speaking out on this occasion on this subject.

If you are always on the other side, you detract from the effect of each intervention as people begin to expect you to object and may not take you seriously.

Choose your words

Make sure you don’t attack the person.

Acknowledge the thinking behind the idea: ‘I see that/I understand that…’
Don’t label the proposal with words like ‘disastrous’, ‘half-baked’, short-sighted’, ‘ill-advised’. You might feel you are talking about the plan, but the person will feel that you are talking about them.

Use expressions such as ‘In my opinion’/’I see this rather differently’/’I’m wondering if we’/I have some reason to think’/’I’m thinking that…

Don’t grandstand

This is a lovely legal phrase picked up from US courtroom dramas (you can practically qualify as a lawyer or even a judge if you always do your TV homework). The word describes a speech which is a bit attention-seeking and showy-offy.

For example, you might begin by outlining the virtues of the proposal, only to slap it down:

  • ‘This suggestion is timely and addresses the problems we have been facing. It is also… (boom boom)…bound to fail.’
  • ‘Peter has suggested an approach which we should certainly adopt… (boom boom)…if we want to lose every single client.’

See? It’s great fun, and you hold the floor for a minute or two, but you make it all about you.

Avoid phrases which can have the opposite effect of what you intended

‘I don’t care what you say’ /’I don’t care what anyone says…’

These words are often followed by ‘I still think’ or a similar emphatic repetition or assertion. This is a phrase which seems to come from the heart, and implies the passion with which an opinion is held. (Oh how we love passion.)

The trouble is that it shuts down communication. Why continue to debate if someone doesn’t care what we think or say?

‘With respect’

What is the point of this phrase? Let’s hope that all our communications and conversations are conducted on the basis of mutual respect. These words rather suggest we know that what we are about to say implies lack of respect and we want to pre-empt an offended response.

It may suggest that every other opinion we have offered has been in a spirit of no respect. It also could give the impression that we’re a bit scared or in awe of the recipient.

Feel the words, don’t say them.

That’s what it comes down to. R-E-S-P-E-C-T, as the recently retired Aretha Franklin famously sang. Don’t be scared to disagree, and to make a spirited, engaged contribution which acknowledges differences of opinion.

If this proves to be impossible in your place of work, make a decision about how you will handle the situation. After all, no one wants to be in a situation where alternative viewpoints are stifled, do they?

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