5 Ways to Disagree Respectfully at Work

How to get your arguments across without fighting. 

Rasha Accad

Career Coach, Korn Ferry Advance

Work disagreements are a good thing, really. Having the psychological safety at work to voice an opinion that’s different from the consensus can feel extremely liberating. Plus, it’s often good for business. Experts say that differences of opinion can lead to new and innovative ways of thinking and, eventually, to better camaraderie among coworkers.

But these days, not everyone is handling professional differences of opinion so well. Sixty percent of professionals told Korn Ferry earlier this year that their coworkers are ruder now than they were before the pandemic. Being aggressive, caustic, overly sarcastic, or flying off the handle isn’t a great career move. In that same Korn Ferry survey, 35% of professionals said their rude colleague would get a reprimand for their behavior, and 8% said that colleague would get fired.

It's often not easy to stay calm during a work disagreement, especially if other parties are being aggressive. Here’s how to voice your disagreement and keep everyone working together.

Establish common ground.

Experts say it’s critical to stay focused on the goal: the problem that needs solved and its organizational impact. Connecting to the goal creates a sense of being on the same team. If an argument starts getting heated, reminding everyone of the goal can reset the dialogue and—hopefully—shut down personal attacks. "Think of the why as the lighthouse guiding you home when disagreement happens,” says Rasha Accad, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance.

Avoid being toxic.

Keep an eye, and ear, out for John and Julie Gottman’s ‘Four Horsemenof toxic communication: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. As defined by the Gottman Institute, criticism is verbally attacking someone’s personality or character. Contempt involves moral superiority. Defensiveness is acting like a victim and reversing the blame. Stonewalling is withdrawing and expressing disapproval, often via facial expressions and body language.

Listen with an open mind.

Sometimes you might be itching for a professional fight. In those cases, or in situations when you feel passionate about a topic, you may tend to think of comebacks instead of really listening to the other party and trying to understand their reasoning. Rather than immediately offering your opposing opinion, take a beat and set aside your personal agenda. Watch for the other person’s verbal and nonverbal cues and repeat what you just heard to confirm your understanding. Then dig deeper into their opinion. Ask questions to discover how they came to hold this opinion and why it matters to them.

While you listen and ask curious questions, manage your own assumptions and preconceived notions about that person. This requires a high level of self-awareness and can be particularly difficult when emotions are running high. But the more you can aim for objectivity, the smoother communication will go.

Think, ‘Yes, and...’ when disagreeing.

Voicing disagreement—without following the steps above—can lead to everyone talking over each other in a competition to win the conversation. In those situations, no one wins and nearly everyone leaves feeling frustrated.

When you speak up, keep in mind that you can’t force others to think like you. Experts say to start by restating the goal of the conversation, then acknowledge what you have heard from others. Highlight the points of agreement and share what you liked about what others have said. Then express your disagreement while being mindful of your choice of words.

“If possible, use ‘and’ instead of 'but’ when adding your disagreement statement,” Accad says. “The word ‘but’ negates everything said before it and shuts people down. 'And’ is an inclusive word and makes it more likely that people will hear you out.”

Don’t ignore the elephant in the room.

So much time is wasted in business meetings because groups—just because they’re afraid to rock the boat—often go along with somebody's bad or low-priority idea. However, speaking up in a respectful way can save the team and organization wasted time, money, and effort.

It’s up to the leader in the room to notice what’s happening and be aware of what’s being said — and not being said. If something shouldn’t be a priority, but for some reason has gathered momentum, then the leader needs to acknowledge the challenging situation and kindly, but candidly, push back.

Naming challenging things and letting everyone feel free to say what’s on their mind is liberating and empowering for the team. It’s also the responsibility of all team members to be active followers and hold themselves and their peers accountable.


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