How to Disagree with Someone Constructively and Gracefully

We will examine together what we should be aware of to disagree with someone constructively and argue gracefully to win respect at the workplace.

How to Disagree with Someone Constructively and Gracefully

There will be moments when you do not see eye to eye with someone, especially when your work requires you to deal with different people within the organization every day.

You may disagree with your boss in the way things are planned or your colleagues over the image used for the website.

Whenever there is a conflict, how each team member reacts will influence the team's synergy and culture. Depending on how the disputes are eventually resolved, it can also affect the work outcome.

This is why it is vital to learn to disagree with someone constructively and gracefully– not only for the sake of the team and company but also for yourself.

You would realize that not turning each disagreement into a heated discussion or an awkward situation would make your work more enjoyable and productive.

As a company's culture is being set from the top-down, this is a critical skill not only for a subordinate but also for a leader to create an environment that promotes and encourages innovation, trust, and respect.

How to Disagree Constructively

I hope you are not.

At Rehearso, we believe awareness is the first step in effective learning and behavior change. You should first be thoughtful enough not to be a destructive or foolish critic when you want to disagree with someone to ensure that you are not shutting down the discussion or angering the other side.

Here are how you avoid sounding like one of those undesirable critics and decide if you disagree constructively:

Awareness 1: Separate your ideas from your identity

Don't tie your self-worth and face to your idea. Instead of protecting your dignity, think more about your goal and vision.

Keep in mind the bigger picture and the outcome you want to achieve so you can discuss thoughtfully and argue productively. You are you, you are not your idea.

The discussion should be about how things could be done better or more acceptably but not whether you prove yourself right. It is about the goal, not about you.

Awareness 2: Necessary argument vs. Unnecessary argument

How many times do a meeting and progress follow-up session turn into an endless and unproductive debate over small details that are less important, and everyone seems to forget what is more critical to make the plan a success?

Whenever you are tempted to argue about something, ask yourself three questions:

  1. Will this argument contribute significantly to the success of the plan? If not, would it have terrible consequences if you decide to move on?
  2. Have you spent too much time on less essential matters than more important issues? Instead of small and implementation details, you should spend more time on directions, concepts, pricing, costs, and goals.
  3. Are you the expert or person in charge of the subject? If not, it would be a better idea to trust the member of your team for their opinion.

Awareness 3: A thorough understanding of the situation and point of view will lead to a better argument

Next time, when you are in discussion with a person, find out what your mind is doing at the time. Are you truly listening, or are you thinking about your next point to say?

A pointless discussion usually happens when the people are merely waiting for the other person to finish talking before saying their point instead of genuinely communicating.

Have you done the work to be eligible in criticizing someone else's idea? If you are not an expert in the subject, not the person directly involved in the situation, and have not done complete research, the least we can do is to lend our ears to listen to what the person has to say.

If you are unsure, ask for some time to think and validate it before giving an opinion that has no base. You would be deemed as a more respected person this way.

Once you know these, it would become easier for you to set your pride aside and maintain your perspective on what is really important to disagree productively. So how do we argue respectfully and gracefully?

Awareness 4: Criticize without explanation and convincing support is like sending people to jail without evidence.

This is a list of the worst things a leader can do during a discussion and meeting:

  1. Dismiss a person's opinion with a "no" and ask to follow blindly.
  2. Turn a discussion into a personal attack session on education background, expertise, appearance, capability, and even race and gender.
  3. Disapprove something without giving a better, actionable, and clear alternative approach.
  4. Tell the people that their views have no validity and say it is "obvious" something should be done. Yes, you are actually implying the person is stupid.

Always help the person identify the problems, discuss, and offer suggestions for improvement – how things could be done better or more acceptably for the sake of the shared objectives or personal goals.

Awareness 5: Our facial expressions and tonality are what carry the most message

You could have the best intention and reason to disagree.

Still, people may perceive it negatively if your facial expressions and perceived emotions through your tonality are not aligned with what you say.

When you talk about your feeling and attitude, this kind of misalignment will make people focus a total of 93% on what they see from your body language and feel from your voice—according to Albert Mehrabian.

So it is best to give a sincere smile and have warmer tones (avoid monotone voice, a high pitch that sounds angry, or speak louder than you usually would) when you want to communicate your disagreement.

How to Disagree Gracefully

Belittle & undervalue yourself (in a humorous way)

Self-deprecating is generally an effective method to mask and neutralize the "attack."

There is a Chinese saying that goes "retreat to advance" (以退為進). The best way to retreat when you want to disagree with something is to let down your guard by displaying yourself as not much of a threat, so you also let down theirs.

People would be more willing to listen when you do not put them in a defensive state.

If you ask people the number one trait they look for in a friend, partner, or colleague, the answers are usually "someone who makes me laugh" or "someone who laughs at my joke."

It is not because of being humorous itself that is the main point here, but how you make people feel.

Laughter makes people relaxed, and it builds the connection. You would make the discussion less tense, and more importantly, people will perceive you as confident, competent, and warm.

This is especially powerful when you use self-deprecating in the first sentence of your response with a smile after you get a provoking comment or question.

Example: "People be surprised when I tell 'em I have a 4.0 GPA while working & maintaining an active social life, but anything is possible when you lie."@davidboomin

Establish common ground

There is always a reason for you and the person to discuss, share, negotiate, or plan things together. It could be a desired outcome, a common goal, a concern, or an opinion that you both share.

Circle back to the shared interests you both have and argue based on them. You would find that it is easier to shift their mindset, and you appear to criticize rationally for the benefit of both parties instead of for your face or advantage only.

A classic example would be Elon Musk during the Oslo Oil and Gas Summit in 2014. As someone who seeks to disrupt the industry with an electric vehicle, this question from the interviewer could easily trap him in a situation to offend the oil leaders,

What kind of threat do you think you are to the oil and gas industry?

Instead of arguing that his vision is the new future and lecturing them with facts and data, he chose to establish common ground—he, including everyone in the room, were concerned that oil was getting more and more expensive to extract.

Here is what he said:

I don't think we're much of a threat, yet. The more obvious threat, is that we're going to run out of hydrocarbons to mine and burn. It's getting harder and harder to find hydrocarbons, and it's getting much more expensive to extract them. Really, we're just arguing about the 'when' hydrocarbons run out or become prohibitively expensive.

Wouldn't you feel more open to what he was going to say afterward?

Stick to basic principles and stays big picture

Keep your argument on the issue, not on the small details and people.

When we focus on the small details, we tend to forget about the big picture and argue unconstructively—especially when face and pride come in.

Our purpose can become just showing the other person that he is wrong. It can be interpreted as an attack and insult—not appropriate if you want to be perceived as a rational person and win the argument gracefully.

Instead of telling people what they cannot or should not do, explain to them (even indirectly at times depending on the type of audience you are talking to) what they can do by sticking to the basic principles and guiding them to stay on the big picture.

Show that the purpose of something can be better served via a different route, supported by principles that are easy to understand or something you both have agreed upon priorly.

Simplify, not complicate.

Use metaphor and examples whenever necessary to make your argument easier to comprehend.

Be inclusive

When we disagree with someone, it can become a battle between "me" and "you" if not handled properly.

It can be like sailing towards a destination on the same ship, but one is going north, and the other is going south. This may cause the discussion to halt and go nowhere.

Do your best not to split people into two or more groups (unconsciously or directly) and include them all into a single loop, so it becomes clear that you want to work together towards the same goal and best solution for all parties.

The easiest way to achieve this is to stop yourself from using "I," "me," and "you," but change it to "we," "our," and "us." You would find that you frame your opinion in a more inclusive and considerate way.

Let's use an example to inclusive-fy this sentence:

But I don't think it should work this way. It's obviously not going to work given the circumstances. It's either this or that.

And here is an example of inclusive sentence:

Yes, I think you make a point here. We should do this to achieve that and I think our direction is aligned. There is something I notice here. Do you think the process could be better if this is done another way? It feels better to...

To be inclusive actually starts from shifting your mindset to focus on the big picture and solve the problem instead of your dignity and personal goals.

Without this perspective, you would find it challenging to sound thoughtful and disagree gracefully.

Generally, we should avoid using words and phrases that exclude, dismiss, and belittle the other person, so we focus on working out something but not on the person.

Summing Up

Some people may find that not participating in a discussion or just following what everyone else is saying is the best way to avoid a heated conversation and confrontation.

Some managers may think rules, deadlines, and instructions are the best way to minimize the "people" problems.

With past track records and achievements, some aspiring leaders may think they have more experience than others to have the final say on something without truly listening.

Nevertheless, doing these would shut down the innovative process, and there will be no development—personally or organizationally.

You have probably started reflecting if you have made a similar mistake as you read. This is because it is not unusual that we do not see eye to eye with each other all the time.

If your work involves people, disagreements will and should happen—for personal and professional growth. It hence becomes inevitable to learn how to disagree with someone constructively and gracefully.

Self-awareness is the first step to disagree constructively.

How we communicate is essential to be perceived as a confident, professional, trustworthy, and calm person with admirable Emotional Intelligence.

Always listen, reflect, and improve the way you communicate your point of view to enhance your skill to disagree gracefully, so you earn respect instead of frustration.

Have you ever dealt with a destructive or foolish critic that makes everyone's life harder? Or any respected people who can disagree productively and gracefully? Share their stories in the comment below!