5 Ways to Disagree Respectfully

End-of-year pressures in the workplace can lead to strong opinions—and even stronger differences. 5 ways to manage that.

In today’s world, it can seem that every conversation is just one moment away from hitting a hot-button issue and blowing up—and the workplace isn’t immune. With workers feeling the pressure of inflation, economic insecurity, an uncertain global landscape, and the holiday season, tensions are high.

According to a new 2022 workplace-conflict report, some 36% of people deal with conflict frequently at work now, compared to 29% in 2008. How does this affect daily life in the office? Conflict halts communication; this is a consequence of each person holding negative judgmental assumptions about the other. Disagreement, on the other hand, enables communication to continue, even in the face of differing opinions. It allows all parties to retain respect for one another.

As the disagreeing parties learn from one another and work together to find the best solution, disagreement can actually inspire innovation, experts say. It’s crucial to disagree respectfully and manage your own emotions—even if the other party can’t. Here are some thoughts:

Avoid toxic communication.

With conflict, high emotion can steer the situation, and it’s easy to conflate the topic with the person speaking about it. Keep an eye out for John and Julie Gottman’s “Four Horsemen” of toxic communication: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. According to 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; and stonewalling is withdrawing and expressing disapproval, even with facial expressions and body language.

Establish common ground.

When setting the scene for disagreement, career experts say to maintain a mutual focus on the goal—the problem that needs to be solved—as well as the organizational impact of the conversation. Connecting to the goal creates a sense of being on the same team, and can even diminish inflated egos. It recenters the dialogue around the topic, and (hopefully) closes the door to personal attacks. "When disagreement happens, think of the why as the lighthouse guiding you home,” says Rasha Accad, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance.

Listen with an open mind.

When we feel passionate about a topic, we tend to think of our own responses rather than really listening to the other person. Before offering your opposing opinion, put your agenda to the side, be present for the other person’s verbal and nonverbal cues, and repeat what you’ve just heard to confirm your understanding. Then dig deeper. Ask questions to discover how the other person came to hold their opinion and why it matters to them.

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

Think “yes, and” when disagreeing.

If you aren’t mindful of the steps discussed above, voicing disagreement can often lead to everyone talking over each other and competing to win the conversation. But no one actually wins that way.

When you speak up, bear in mind that you can’t control others or force them to think like you. People sense an agenda, and are put off by it. When it’s your turn to speak, career experts say, 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, describe 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.”

Leaders, name the elephant in the room.

So much time is wasted in meetings because groups are afraid to rock the boat and often go along with somebody's bad (or low-priority) idea. This is a tricky situation, but speaking up in the right way can save the team and organization 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 that shouldn’t be a priority has gathered momentum for some reason (or come down from the higher-ups), then the leader needs to acknowledge the challenging situation and kindly but candidly push back—or explain why the team has to go ahead with it anyway, if that’s the case.

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.