3 Steps to Disagree Respectfully at Work

I spent a long time in my career doing exactly what other people wanted. I would receive orders and execute them without raising any problems, figuring that was the way to win people’s approval and quickly get promoted. 

Little did I know that taking orders is not a sign of your promotional potential. Leadership is about challenging the status quo with disruptive ideas and being proactive about your ability to communicate them. 

The problem is: how do you raise an alternative perspective without also raising conflict? How do you say that you “disagree” without offending a colleague or even a boss and hurting that professional relationship? 

In this article, I will cover a step-by-step method you can use to respectfully yet authoritatively state your contrasting opinion. 

Here’s the game plan:

Step 1: Acknowledge

One of the first things we’re tempted to do when we want to disagree is say, “I think that’s a bad idea” or “I have a better plan”. If you think about it from the other person’s perspective, this is how that feels:

“Oh…wow, they really don’t like my idea” or “Oh…they really think they can do better?” 

By invalidating the other person’s perspective, you put them in an aggressively defensive position. And as a result, they’re much less likely to listen to you. 

Instead, find a way to acknowledge what the other person’s side is.

This can take the form of:

  • Genuinely appreciating something specific about their idea: “I appreciate the way your proposal considers all the potential costs involved, especially since our budget this quarter is tight…”
  • Restating their idea to make sure you correctly understand it: “From what I understand, this is what you’re suggesting…”
  • Acknowledge the larger goal you’re all working toward: “Our goal, as you said, is definitely to expand reach in the newly identified market…”

Step 2: Ask

Even if you take the first step of acknowledging the other person’s side, this next step is where conversations can get into trouble. 

Think about how it feels when someone says, “I think you did a great job yesterday. But…” or “You raise a good point. But…”

If the other person feels you’re just “understanding” and “complimenting” them to butter them up for your own agenda, they will disengage.

After the “Acknowledge” step, avoid the pitfall of immediately jumping into what you want. You need to take the time to truly understand their side from a place of genuine curiosity, or they will not feel heard and will be even more resistant to listening to you. 

At this step, ask questions, accepting the strong possibility you may learn something new and realize something you didn’t before.

This can take the form of:

  • “I’ve been thinking about the recent drop in performance for Product A. What are your thoughts on how that affects our upcoming project?”
  • “Can you help clarify how taking Step 4 will lead to greater customer retention?”

It’s only when you do in fact understand the other person’s side that we can proceed to step 3. 

Step 3: Alternative

With both of you on the same page, you can propose your alternative.

This can take the form of:

  • “I think we can take this even further by…”
  • “From my experience I’ve also found that…”

The core approach here, as it has been in the previous two steps, is “Yes, and…” 

Rather than disregarding the other person’s idea in favor of your own, you are instead aiming to add on to it to achieve your common goal. 

Summary

You can disagree with respect and authority by taking these 3 steps:

1. Acknowledgement of their side

2. Asking questions to clarify

3. Alternative proposal

The key is taking a step back and realizing you’re not actually “disagreeing” and “raising conflict”. Instead, you’re reaching a mutually beneficial outcome together by synthesizing your different perspectives. 

If you’re looking for further guidance on how to speak with confidence and authority, reach out to me here.

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