Tuesday, December 29, 2009

How to Disagree With Others Without Being Disagreeable

Someone once said, “Everyone has the right to his own stupid opinion.” Another person of the same ilk said, “You can disagree with me if you want. But you’ll still be wrong.”

We’ve all been in situations where we’ve disagreed with someone's idea or opinion. Differences in opinions often lead to defensiveness and closure. One of the difficult challenges of interpersonal communication is having the ability to disagree with someone without causing them to react negatively to the dispute.

As a management consultant I’m often called upon to mediate conflict between members of work groups or cross-functional teams. My role is to help people stay open as they work through their differences. I try to provide people with ways they can respond to each other that will encourage open dialogue rather than cause people to close down.

Here are nine techniques I teach people to use when they find themselves disagreeing with another person. These skills allow you to disagree without sounding disagreeable.

Since people always seem quick to interrupt someone when they are in disagreement, the first skill is to keep yourself from jumping into the discussion prematurely. You cannot argue with a point you have not heard. Most people start arguing at the first point of disagreement in a discussion. They don’t listen to the other person’s entire statement. This is what I call “arguing in process,” or disagreeing before the person is done. Many times, after being forced to stop and listen to the entire statement, you’ll find there is no disagreement once you’ve heard the entire message. You only thought you were in disagreement because you prematurely judged what the other person was saying.

This leads to the second confrontational skill. Make sure you understand the other person’s perspective first before stating your view. Or as Steven Covey says, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

Ensure you have a clear grasp of the other person’s position. Find out why they see things and do things the way they do. As disagreements arise use statements like the following:

• “Help me to understand the reason why you do it that way.”
• “Walk me through your thought process so I can understand how you made that decision.”
• “What procedure do you follow when you do X?”
• “Let me make sure I understand where you’re coming from.”


Sometimes when people disagree they really are closer to agreement than they suppose. Unfortunately when disagreements arise most people go straight to the point of contention rather than stating the items on which they agree. This quick rebuttal makes the other party think there is disagreement on every aspect of the issue when, in fact, the person may only disagree on a few minor points.

By breaking down the various points of the discussion you can state where you are in agreement first. Identify what you like about the other person’s idea or actions before you address where you disagree. Tell them how close you are to agreement.

For example, you could say:

• “I agree that we should do X and Y. I’m not so sure about Z.”
• “I like what you’ve proposed about X and Y. I don’t think Z should be changed at this point because . . .”
• “I’m about 80% in agreement. I just have a couple of questions I need answered before I’ll be fully convinced that it will work.”

Some people ask a lot of questions because they’re trying to convince themselves that the idea or opinion is right. Others ask probing questions or make contrary statements because they want to see how committed the person is to his or her own idea or opinion. In these cases the person actually isn’t in disagreement, but the rapid-fire questions make it appear that way. Likewise, some people play the role of "devil's advocate" as a means to further explore the validity of an idea. But the devilishness of the advocate often hides the virtue behind the questioning.

To keep from being seen as an adversary, you should state when you’re playing the devil’s advocate role. You also should state why you are taking a contrary stance. The majority of people who play devil’s advocate do it to discover loopholes or problems with an idea or opinion. They do it to make the idea better, not to shoot holes in it. They do it to help solidify the idea or opinion, not to destroy it. On the other hand, if someone plays the devil’s advocate role just to stir up trouble or to be divisive, this individual should be the target of feedback about their disruptive behavior.

In all aspects of your discussion you should avoid using the word “but”, such as in “I agree, but . . .” Instead, replace “but” with “and,” or end your comment with a period where you would normally say “but.”

• “I agree with Z, (but) and I think we should consider replacing X and Y before implementing Z.”
• “There is validity in your point (but). Let me share another perspective.”
• “You’re right, you have been coming in on time lately (but). I expect you to be on time every day.”

Before you start offering suggestions for improvement, ask the recipient if they would like your input.

People are more receptive to feedback when they have asked for the feedback. However, there are times when you need to give feedback to people who have not asked for it. Since the probability is high that at some point you will need to give a colleague feedback, you should establish a “groundrule” in advance for how this is to be done should the need for feedback arise. Ask people in advance if they’d like input from you. Also ask them in advance how they would like to receive that feedback. For example:

• “I don’t have any ideas right now, but if I ever see something in your area that needs improvement, how would you like me to pass that information along to you?”
• “I have a couple of thoughts on how you might be able to do X faster. Would you like to hear my ideas?”
• “We have an interesting way of handling problems like that in our department. Would you like to know how we do it?”

Whenever you give someone feedback on how to improve, don’t load the dice. Give them only one or two issues to work on at a time. If you have several concerns, break up your feedback into separate sessions. Let them fix one problem at a time. Compliment them for taking action on the first issue, and then share another concern.

If you want to sway other people to your point of view it is best to acknowledge the other person’s position before you inform them about your view. Acknowledge their opinion or idea before you share yours. Verify your understanding of their perspective before you try swaying them to your position.

When you acknowledge the other person’s view up front with a responsive statement they normally will be more receptive to listening to your take on the issue. Examples of acknowledging statements are:

• “That’s an interesting idea.”
• “I can see how you could draw that conclusion.”
• “You’ve obviously put a lot of thought into this.”

Sometimes all a person needs to not feel offended is a simple acknowledgment of their concern or opinion. Men (who are from Mars) often raise the ire of women (who are from Venus) when they quickly inform her of what can be done to fix a problem without taking time to hear and acknowledge her frustration. Too often parents are quick to inform their teenagers of their reasons for saying no before they understand what really is being sought by the adolescent. The lack of acknowledgment of the validity of the teen’s request leads to feelings of rejection and resentment.

Finally, you need to understand that you cannot move another person until you move yourself. If you want to get other people to accept your perspective or move to your position, you’ll move them a lot faster by first moving yourself to their perspective. Once you have walked in their shoes or seen things through their eyes, you’ll have a much better chance of bringing them over to your idea or opinion.

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If you would like more information about how Innovative Management Group can help build effective teams within your company, please contact us at 702-258-8334, e-mail to mac@imglv.com, or visit us on the web at www.imglv.com.

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