“If you have learned how to disagree without being disagreeable, then you have discovered the secret of getting along — whether it be business, family relations, or life itself.” — Bernard Meltzer
Many years ago, when I worked as a Junior Developer in New York City, I had a coworker who refused to disagree with me. We’ll call him Mike.
Instead of letting me know when we didn’t see eye to eye on a project, he’d make snide remarks (you sure that’s the direction you want to go, Aytekin?).
Needless to say, this was not much fun.
But because we were coworkers and I was just starting out in my career, I didn’t want to rock the boat.
So we spent months in this passive-aggressive limbo. Mike would cc my boss on emails to me with the subject line URGENT. I, in turn, would message colleagues and complain about his childish antics (can you believe this guy?!)
Rather than have an honest dialogue and openly disagree with one another, we did what most people do under such fraught circumstances: avoid, avoid, avoid.
If you’re nodding along, you probably know what I’m talking about.
It’s no surprise — we all have this unspoken desire to uphold an image of “niceness” at work.
Disagreeing feels combative, especially when the stakes are high, like when we’re at a new job or vying for a promotion. It can communicate that we’re not team players or worse, puts a target of “difficult” on our backs.
And this can feel even more intimidating when the person is our supervisor.
But here’s the thing: we tend to confuse disagreeing with being unkind. Yet, it’s quite the opposite. Being able to express our opinions is what fosters more trust and engagement with our teammates.
In other words, we find common ground the moment we stop fearing being heard.
Why we should speak up at work
There will always be elements of friction that are beyond our control, and this is especially true in the workplace. No matter how carefully we try, we can’t completely escape conflicts. It’s likely we all have a Mike in our lives who pushes our every button.
But the solution isn’t to bottle everything up. As Harvard Business Review contributor, Liane Davey, writes:
“If you think you’re ‘taking one for the team’ by not rocking the boat, you’re deluding yourself.”
Teams need some form of conflict to function effectively, Davey explains, “Conflict allows the team to come to terms with difficult situations, to synthesize diverse perspectives, and to make sure solutions are well thought-out. Conflict is uncomfortable, but it is the source of true innovation and also a critical process in identifying and mitigating risks.”
It’s important to remember that no one is immune to stress. Whether it comes in the form of a difficult client, challenging project, or a faulty sink at home — daily annoyances are bound to influence our moods, hence the disposition we bring to work.
That’s why being empathetic to where people are coming from is the first step toward managing workplace conflict.
But before voicing our opinions and disagreeing, we should ask ourselves the following questions:
Am I open to new ideas?
Can I express genuine curiosity about what they have to say?
Can I actively listen to their perspective?
Speaking up involves so much more than simply opposing someone’s view.
British leader and writer, Winston Churchill put it well:
“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak. Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”
Disagreeing gives you opportunities to grow
Here’s a little known secret: I’m an innate people-pleaser.
This has also meant that becoming comfortable with conflict has been an ever-evolving process as CEO of my company Jotform.
Knowing what I know now, I’d like to go back in time and act differently. Instead of thinking of seething comebacks, I’d try to understand Mike’s point of view.
“Listen first. Give your opponents a chance to talk,” said American writer and lecturer, Dale Carnegie. “Let them finish. Do not resist, defend or debate. This only raises barriers. Try to build bridges of understanding.”
But because I can’t time-travel, I’ve taken the above advice to heart and try to foster it in my own business.
I’ve put together a few guidelines so my team of over 140 employees have the right tools in place to approach disagreeing in a more harmonious way.
Four strategies for disagreeing
1. Avoid complaining
Try engaging your teammates instead of becoming combative when expressing your concerns. Rather than highlighting why they’re wrong, for example, approach your differences of opinion by asking problem-solving questions. “What options do we have?” will go over more smoothly than simply trying to defend your point.
2. Think impact
Contradicting someone head-on does little to move the conversation forward. When thinking about another course of action, ask your colleagues to weigh the long-term impact it will have. “Do you think this new design could isolate some of our customers in Canada?” The point is to open up the discussion in a non-aggressive way that respects their input and helps you find common ground.
3. Connect your disagreement to a “higher purpose”
You’re more likely to be heard when you remain calm and identify a shared goal. If you need to speak up to a more powerful person like a supervisor, for example, make it clear that you want to advance the company’s mission. By helping them understand the reasoning behind your motivation, you don’t seem like you’re trying to undermine their authority, but looking out for the entire team.
4. Stay open
Encourage your teammates to feel free to express their opinions and concerns without feeling judged in return. This is probably what I most wish I could change about my interactions with Mike. Here’s what I’ve learned since then: showing genuine empathy, caring, and concern sets the stage for healthy conflict resolution.
But it doesn’t stop there.
Noticing when someone wants to speak up and asking them to share their opinion is just as important. Inspirational author, Shannon L. Alder, sums it up well:
“The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t being said. The art of reading between the lines is a lifelong quest of the wise.”