How to Disagree Constructively

by Paddy Barr, Managing Partner, Barr Performance Coaching and IMI associate

It is inevitable and healthy for there to be a certain level of disagreement and friction in a business. In fact, no disagreement indicates that there is either “group think” going on, or not enough diversity of thought within the team; it may also be a symptom of the presence of an autocratic leader. For a business to function and grow, there needs to be an element of constructive disagreement within and between teams.

When presenting a counterpoint, it is important to be very specific on what it is you disagree with and not to be personal in your argument. Ensure that you present your alternative idea as an option to be considered, as opposed to a criticism. Try to find an objective way of presenting the options. Show that you understand the other person’s point of view – not just by stating “I understand your point of view”, but by demonstrating that you have considered their perspective – including whether they have higher authority than you, or feel more ownership over the topic being discussed. Then be specific on what elements of their point of view you can build upon, before outlining where you disagree.  For instance, is there an opportunity to start the sentence with “Yes AND…”? The positive intent will help people understand that you are trying to be supportive and constructive, and work collaboratively, but also bring a new perspective to the table.

Commonly, disagreements stem from the following areas:

  • Lack of alignment on (or understanding of) the critical success factors or priorities for the business;
  • Utilisation of finite resources, usually apparent in a budget or resource allocation discussions;
  • An individual’s risk tolerance or perception of a likely risk;
  • The perceived impact of the risk on the individual or business should the risk come to pass;
  • Individuals or groups with mutually exclusive goals.

The What and the How

In any disagreement there is the “what” and the “how”.

The What

The “what” involves understanding the outcome or purpose of the other person’s perspective and which aspect you disagree with. Here are some guidelines to help you solidify your position:

  • Why do you disagree? Be clear and concise with no more than 3-4 reasons. If you have a laundry list of reasons, people will think you don’t have a good argument, so you are “dredging the bottom of the barrel” to come up with objections.
  • Do you fully understand the other person’s perspective?
    • Are there any underlying anxieties or hopes/fears that may be influencing the other person’s perspective?
    • Put yourself in their shoes: try and argue in favour of their position.
    • What anxieties, hopes or fears are underlying your opinion?
    • Is this ultimately your decision, their decision, or someone senior to both of you?
  • Have you or the business created an objective evaluation matrix to assess all options?

If your reason for disagreeing is subjective or emotive, don’t hide it – it’s okay to make people aware that you know you are acting upon your feelings. However, never present your subjective views as facts or objective data.

The How

When disagreeing with the other person, it is important to ask yourself “How am I going to make them feel?”  The purpose of the discussion is to reach a positive outcome for the business. The “How” looks at how to present your perspective:

  • Check your reasoning and rationale with a third party.
  • Solicit support for your perspective. Identify an individual whose opinion is respected by the person you disagree with, then see if they can help to influence on your behalf
  • Find out if there is agreement on what success looks like at a macro level – do you agree on the main goal, and only disagree on how to get there, for example?.
  • Choose a good time to disagree – avoid open or public disagreement if possible, so that people don’t feel put on the spot or embarrassed.
  • Don’t attack the other person or their views. If you can, make the person feel good about their idea or position, and if appropriate, thank them for their initiative and the thought they have put into their proposal.
  • Ask the other person if they want to hear your opinion. Present your proposal as an opinion (an opinion cannot be right or wrong) and focus on presenting the positives of your view or proposal. Bring a suggested solution.
  • Can you include aspects of their perspective in your proposal? Where do the two proposals complement each other? Be open to seeing the best of both worlds.
  • Acknowledge the reality – ultimately, there is usually someone above you who may well have the final call (and maybe this is even the person you’re disagreeing with), so in most circumstances, it’s appropriate to should acknowledge that fact and make it clear that you will support the final decision whichever way it goes.

Always remain calm and do not take the conversation personally. In the end, any disagreements should always be a rational business discussion. Avoid judgemental language that could be perceived to be critical of the other person or their idea.  Thus it is important that if you are disagreeing with someone that you do it in a manner that will not impinge upon their self-worth or dignity.

As part of your disagreement try to bring a solution or accommodation to the conversation.  Some people bring a challenge but do not bring a solution to the discussion, if you only bring a challenge you are at risk of being perceived as a blocker.  Be sure to maintain focus on the ultimate goal and bring a suggestion that may help address the core issues.

Reflective exercise:

Think about the last time you had a significant disagreement with someone at work. Who was it, and what was it about? How was it resolved? Is there anything you might do differently now, in order to get a different or better outcome?