It always amazes me how misunderstood the simple act of disagreeing can be. Many try to avoid it when, in fact, we all know that disagreement is a healthy part of any relationship. After all, would you really like to be part of a relationship where there was never any disagreement?
One of the more obscure jobs I was trained to do for Xerox was to study all forms of communication during meetings. I was supposed to document and chart the communication patterns for all meetings I was invited to attend. The company sent me all over the country to accomplish this task, and in a short period of time, I got pretty good at it. I watched how, in a handful of meetings, the actual lack of disagreements led to disastrous results. On the surface, these meetings sure looked harmonious. Under the surface, however, I rarely saw any serious exchange of ideas. Those “harmonious” meetings lacked creativity; there was no real accountability, and whatever solutions the groups acted on, typically failed. Oh, and when those solutions failed, there was a lot of finger pointing that went on… behind closed doors, of course.
“Honest disagreement is often a good sign of progress.”
It just isn’t an option to avoid disagreements. One of the reasons disagreement can fail is that it’s trickier than it appears, and we are rarely, if ever, taught exactly how to disagree. To be sure, we are left with an unusual paradox that involves disagreement: Without it, we are doomed, and with it, we place ourselves in potential danger. So let’s figure this out by looking at four general areas to focus on when disagreeing.
- The Words. My apologies if it sounds like I’m trying to make this more difficult than it is, but words really matter here. In a corporate environment, it can be difficult to raise your hand and simply disagree. It is challenging to respectfully disagree with someone – in front of the whole team. That doesn’t mean we can’t disagree in front of a team, but it does mean we have to choose our words wisely. I’ve always been a fan of what I call, “the support/build” method. This is a process that supports the idea of the person we are questioning, and then allows us to disagree with them by building on a particular idea that has been presented. It sounds something like this:
Person A: I propose we start charging for internal project support.
Person B: I think finding a revenue source is an excellent idea. (Support) What if we look at all avenues available to make sure we can generate revenue and retain the support we need from our other departments? (Build)
- The Tune. There’s nothing worse then hearing someone disagree – with well thought-out words – but with a lack of sincerity. Missing an opportunity to have the words line up with the tune can create all sorts of distrust and paranoia. Just in case you are struggling here, think of it this way: If you truly believe what you are saying, you will have the right tune.
- The Expression. It’s been proven that your facial expression conveys more of the emotional impact of your message than words, tune, or any other nonverbal cue. Good or bad, your face and your expression are windows to your sincerity. Much like getting the tune to lines up with our words, we are quite capable of having our facial expressions line up with our words as well. That fake smile, or as my Egyptian friends would call it, that “yellow smile,” isn’t fooling anyone. Make sure you truly believe what you are saying, and your face will not betray your words.
- The Timing. There is a time and place to disagree. It doesn’t reflect weakness, but rather strength, to determine when the timing is right to disagree. Do you really think that taking on a dominant manager, in front of his or her team, will be well received? Do you think that calling out a friend, in front of his or her peers, is the right timing? Picking the right time for a disagreement is critical and will dramatically increase your chances for success.
So there it is. There may still be some of you who are thinking this: “That’s all well and good, but that’s not how I want someone to disagree with me!” I offer you my sincere apologies if only…
…if only this was about you. But this isn’t about you and how you would like others to disagree with you. In fact, this was never about you. This is about the person or persons whom you may disagree with, and how and when you disagree means everything to them. That’s the part that gets by so many of us. When you take yourself out of the equation, and look at the art of disagreement from the other person’s point of view, you will see that thinking about the words, the tune, the expression, and the timing will help to make the other person open to your point of view, and receptive to other ways of looking at something. In other words, you will have learned the art of disagreement.