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How to disagree without rubbing people the wrong way
“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” — Sun Tzu
Sun Tzu’s words, though spoken in the context of warfare, carry a profound message that transcends the battlefield. With this in mind, mastering the art of disagreement without conflicts is possible, but it requires courage, diplomacy, compassion, and a lot of trial and error.
In my previous article, I talked about why learning to disagree is so important and how it can be the edge you need to advance your career. If you’ve never thought of disagreements as a competitive advantage, I invite you to start by reading that article.
The goal of this article is not to teach you how to always win disagreements. Unfortunately, I don’t have a magical recipe for that. What I can assure you is that, by using the dos and don’ts presented in this article, you can significantly increase the chances of getting what you want, all while striving to maintain positive relationships. Let’s delve into it!
Step 1: Preparation
It all begins with careful preparation. To avoid rubbing people the wrong way and gaining a reputation as "difficult to work with," you need to make sure you understand the problem and the current options. Listen to understand, not to respond. Ask clarifying questions if necessary.
To lay a strong foundation for the discussion, one useful approach is to try to articulate the problem and the other person’s point of view in your own words. This tactic is also known as reflective listening.
A strategic question you need to ask yourself is: is this the right time to express my dissent? Assessing risk is a necessary step, often overlooked. Consider whether your idea could benefit from getting more buy-ins from other influential figures first. Also, if you’re in a group setting, consider discussing the issue in private. This might make the other person feel less threatened and more open to your disagreement.
Now that you’re very clear on what the problem and proposed solutions are, and decided it’s the right time to express your dissent, the next step is execution.
Step 2: Execution
Let’s discuss some general guidelines for the execution steps.
Tone and body language matter a lot. According to "Non-Violent Communication" by Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph.D., the more you can stay calm and talk at a slow and deliberate pace, the more you increase your chances of being heard. Direct eye contact helps.
When you express yourself, do not make any threats, ultimatums, or personal attacks. The moment your cross this line, you’re in conflict territory. Also, never interrupt or talk over others, even if others do that to you. When they go low, you can simply go high by saying “I wasn’t done speaking, please let me finish”.
Next, let’s introduce your dissenting opinion. If you find saying “I disagree” to be too harsh, here are some alternatives:
May I offer a different perspective?
I have reasons to believe that this won’t work. Would it be okay to explain my reasoning?
Have we considered this other point of view?
Next, find common ground. Make it very clear to the opposing side that you’re not against them personally. Show empathy for them and the problem. If applicable, try to find something about the solution proposed that you actually agree with. This makes the conversation not about “you vs them”.
When phrasing your disagreement, communicate it clearly, without hesitations.
Try as much as possible to avoid “you” statements, filler words, or words that are dismissive and final (eg: “should”, “just”). Make the other party feel like you’re keeping the dialog open.
Don’t assume your point of view is obvious (no “clearly”, or “obviously”) and don’t generalize (“always”, “never”).
Also, avoid using judgmental words (eg: “bad”, “wrong”, “dumb”, “crazy”), ideally cut out all adjectives even if they’re positive.
Blaming is out of the question. The moment you start blaming, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Blaming is extremely toxic because it undermines psychological safety, which is the key quality of the culture that encouraged disagreements in the first place.
Instead, include direct factual appeals, aka supporting information and evidence. Encourage everyone to engage in critical thinking and stay rational.
Preferably, try to package your disagreement with a solution. Just pointing out the flaws of the current approach will most likely be seen negatively, because it’s easier to criticize than to actually get involved in finding solutions.
If possible, link your case to the organization’s goals and values. This will make your disagreement not only more persuasive but also less controversial.
I find it always helpful to express the desire to find the best solution and non-attachment to a particular solution.
Another thing that might be helpful is to ask the people to reflect your solution back to you. That way you can see if they really understood it or not.
Finally, be genuine about hearing others, don’t try to force an outcome and give the other person the freedom to make their own decisions.
Mastering the art of disagreement is no easy task, but it's worth the effort. Remember, you don't have to fight to win. Instead, approach disagreements with courage, diplomacy, and compassion.
Preparation is key. Understand the problem, listen actively, and choose the right time to express your dissent.
When it's time to execute, maintain a calm and deliberate tone. Communicate clearly and confidently, avoiding judgment and filler words. Provide evidence and solutions.
Throughout the process, remain open-minded, encourage critical thinking, and sincerely hear others to find the best solutions together.
Until next time, keep embracing the art of disagreement and making a positive impact!
Your Caring Techie
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