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My 15 Best Tips for Successful Disagreement

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Four coworkers dressed in business casual discuss an issue sitting around a table

You Can Become More Comfortable With Disagreement

Chris Schmidt

Disagreement can happen in any setting. You can disagree with your neighbor in cubicleville. You can disagree with your boss or initiate a discussion with a coworker over lunch. But, many disagreements occur during meetings – or they should.

The reason organizations hold meetings is so that employees can engage each other in discussion. Otherwise, why hold a meeting? Meetings are for discussion, decisions, and commitments. If you don’t state your opinion, whether you agree or disagree, you are not part of the discussion.

You have no reason to attend the meeting or participate on the team if you are unwilling to discuss your opinions and agree or disagree with the opinions of your fellow attendees. If you’re afraid to disagree with your boss, why does he or she need you? To do what you’re told? To work on tasks and action items? Or, to think, innovate, plan, and disagree.

In fact, healthy disagreement is one of the hallmarks of a successful team. When constructive discussion and disagreement is absent, and apathy is the norm, you have a dysfunctional team or meeting.

Keeping all of this in mind plus the discussion about workplace culture in my earlier article about how to disagree, here are my fifteen best tips for successful disagreement.

  1. Pick your battles wisely. If you disagree about everything, your coworkers will see you as argumentative and disagreeable. You’ll develop the reputation of always disagreeing and your reasonable disagreement will be viewed as same old, same old. So, pick areas that affect outcomes and that are substantial, meaningful, and important.

  2. Don’t hold a conflict when you’re angry, emotional, or upset. You don’t want your emotions to affect your professionalism, arguments or data presentation. Above all, you don’t want your emotions to cause you to attack, name-call, or demean your coworkers. When speaking, at any point in a disagreement, stay calm. Your successful disagreement depends on it.

  3. Disagreement should not be personal. You are not disagreeing with your coworker because there is something wrong with her or you don’t like her. You are disagreeing based on facts, experience, intuition, prior team successes and failures, your coworkers’ track record on similar projects, and your organization’s culture. Keep the discussion impersonal by not you-ing your colleague as in “you just don’t understand the ramifications of what you’re suggesting.” No personal attacks allowed.

  4. You want to validate your coworker’s opinion. Identify the components with which you agree and acknowledge that you can understand or see why she might feel the way she does. Open your disagreement by repeating what the other party said rather than launching into your areas of disagreement first. Help the person feel as if he was listened to, heard out, and understood.

  5. Maintain your professionalism. Be respectful of your coworkers. Disagreement can be cordial, yet candid and effective. Don’t try to manipulate the situation as one former coworker did. She cried. Another was always on the attack. He saved up his ammunition and hit his coworkers with everything he had in his arsenal on occasion. Neither were successful and their professional reputations suffered.

  6. Understand what your coworker needs, fears, and hopes to obtain through the solution. If you identify what is at stake in the issue, the problem solving, the recommendation, or project, you are more likely to connect with your coworker to successfully disagree. Ask questions like these: What’s your real concern about the project? What’s bothering you about this current solution? What has to occur for you to comfortably support a solution? Are you comfortable with any aspects of my suggestion?

  7. Only speak for yourself. In a client company, freelance writers interact on a forum. I found myself regularly annoyed by one colleague, who posts regularly. It took me awhile to figure out the problem, but once I did, I now see it in just about every post. She consistently tries to speak for all of the freelancers. She uses statements like “We all feel this way.” “This is the change we’d all like to see.” When coworkers speak this way, they think that they are putting weight behind their thoughts but all it does usually is make people angry.

    Or, in the case of your coworker, the individual might see it as ganging up on her. Your coworker may also become distracted from the actual topic of the discussion as she pursues who we is. So, using the word we or any equivalent is unlikely to help with disagreement.

  8. Step back from your job and how you perform a particular activity. To effectively disagree, you must be able to look at the situation from your coworker’s functional point of view. The further up the organization’s hierarchy your job is, the more important it becomes to look at each issue from a total organizational view. You must be open to new ideas and different ways of approaching problems. Why is your way the best way when other ways to obtain the same, or even better result, exist? In organizations, employees who can think about optimizing for the whole organization are the people who are promoted.

  9. Avoid interrogating your coworker. Asking questions to understand your coworker’s viewpoint is appropriate. Throwing out an unending stream of questions to trip him up, confuse the issue, make him look silly or uninformed is not. It is also insulting and childish.

  10. State the facts (if you have any) and share your knowledge. You can bring your experience, expertise, knowledge, and any data that you have that might support a direction to the table. You may talk about them to move your team forward. But, the opposite must be avoided. Just because something was tried, and didn’t work in the past, doesn’t mean that it won’t this time. The problem is different. The players are different. Even the will to make the solution work may have changed.

  11. Speak to common interests and needs. Just as you started out the discussion by identifying what you and your coworker agree on, focus your discussion on shared interests and desired outcomes. If your coworker thinks that the two of you are headed in the same direction or have a shared outcome in mind, disagreement about how to get there is less scary and contentious.

  12. Listen to try to see your coworker’s point of view. In a successful disagreement setting, both coworkers can state clearly the other party’s position on the issue. If you can’t, examine your listening. Use the technique of feeding back to your colleague what you believe he said. For example, say, “John, I believe that your position is this ___.” That tells your colleague that you are listening to what he has to say. People waste a lot of time in arguments that could have been avoided if they just understood the other person’s position better. They argue over ostensible disagreements and details.

  13. Avoid putting down your coworker’s beliefs, interests, and ideas. You can have a disagreement with coworkers without making them feel like what they value or think is wrong. In fact, check your judgmental self at the door when you attend a meeting. Showing disrespect for a colleague’s ideas or position is inappropriate anywhere but especially at work. Making fun of them is even worse. Be careful of gentle teasing, too. Many of your coworkers were raised by mothers who taught them that “behind every bit of teasing is a grain of truth.”

  14. The goal is not to win but to clear the air in any disagreement at work. You want to know that the issues have been carefully discussed and thought about deeply. You want to make sure that your relationship with your colleague is intact. If you win, you also lose, because your coworker lost. That loss will hang heavy in your relationship and it will affect your ability to disagree in the future. It is also important that your coworker and you are clear about your areas of agreement and disagreement.

  15. Compromise when necessary. You may not agree on everything, but don’t let that fact keep you from reaching a general agreement on a direction or a solution. In an organization, you can’t freeze in place and do nothing just because you haven’t found a perfect solution that all parties own. You will need to agree to disagree on aspects of the solution or problem solving.

    In a compromise, you need to make sure that the conceded items are ones that you can live with following the meeting. At the same time, you want to avoid consensus decision making in which the lowest common denominator determines the course of action. Consensus decision making can cause low quality decisions and solutions as a team struggles to come up with a solution that is acceptable to all.

Disagreement can be difficult and many people find it scary. But, if you practice these fifteen approaches to disagreement, you’ll find that most of what you worry about won’t happen. The majority of your coworkers want to reach agreement on solutions and solve problems. They want to maintain positive relationships with their coworkers. They want to be thought of favorably and they seek a seat on the list of good employees.

Key with conflict and disagreement is that following all of the talking, all players must support and own the decisions reached. It is injurious to your organization to have employees pulling in different directions, second guessing decisions, and sending mixed messages to coworkers and customers. This is not to suggest that you can’t relook at decisions as time and experience bring you more information. But to start, your job is to make the current decisions work.

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