Disagreement is nothing to be fearful of – it’s an inevitable part of working within a business team. However, it’s essential it is done constructively.
When teams are working together effectively they use disagreeing and supporting verbal behaviors in equal amounts. Here, disagreeing is defined as “making a clear statement of disagreement with someone else’s statement, idea or approach, or raising objections.”
Supporting, on the other hand, is “a clear statement of agreement or support for a person or their statement, opinion, idea or approach.”
Working through disagreement typically leads to greater understanding and better quality solutions. The best relationships are built on the ability to manage tensions as much as the desire to support one another.
Unfortunately, some people show their disagreement by ‘leaking’ emotionally; displaying clear, non-verbal indications of discomfort. This can be seen, by others, as devious or even downright rude.
Others can be unhelpfully vocal, labeling their disagreements which is a sure-fire way to create further dissent. Labelled disagreeing might sound like: ‘I disagree with that because…’ and then the speaker goes on to give the reasons. This can be interpreted as a threat or an attack leaving people stunned into silence, retreating or reacting immediately. There’s a dearth of listening and an absence of exploring the various arguments.
Between these two extremes lie four more constructive alternatives:
- Stating reasons before disagreeing,
- Testing Understanding,
- Giving Feelings, and
Sharing your reasons for disagreeing before declaring your position gives people missing information and a context, which can be used as a basis for exploration and deeper understanding. For example, a colleague suggests that Ilie Nastase is in the all-time top three tennis greats. Rather than label your disagreement you might say: ‘You can judge greatness in a number of ways, for example: longevity, impact, talent. I don’t think Nastase matches up on all those counts, compared with Borg or McEnroe.’ This allows others to understand the basis for your position and a more fruitful discussion can follow.
Testing Understanding is a verbal behavior which seeks to test an assumption or check whether a previous contribution has been understood. For example, Manager One says: ‘Nick has been a consistently high performer across all aspects of his work.’ Rather than directly disagree, Manager Two might say: ‘Does that include safety?’ or ‘High across all three categories – core work, projects and safety?’ His questioning invites all those present to reflect and consider the answer. It also drives up the level of clarity in the meeting, ensuring everyone is on the same page.
The third option is called ‘Giving Feelings’, which is an expression of how you feel about what’s happening in any given interaction. For example, ‘I’m feeling uncomfortable that we’re focusing on just one option’ (versus ‘I disagree with your idea’.)
Finally, Building; which is defined as: ‘Extending or developing a proposal made by another person’. Building requires us to listen to what’s being said and demands that we let go of our own sense of ‘rightness’.
If you disagree with an idea you can use Building to shape the suggestion in a slightly different direction:
Susan: Can we focus the conference on breaking down silos?
Tony: We could have representatives of each function in every break-out group as a way of addressing that in a practical way, which would allow us to broaden the theme.
Of the four alternatives to Disagreeing, Building is the most skillful and the one likely to have the most positive impact.
Don’t be fearful of disagreeing, instead build variety, using the four behaviors above, into your behavioral repertoire.
Ally Yates is author of Utter Confidence: How what you say and do influences your effectiveness in business and an expert on Behaviour Analysis and the interactions that define us. She combines a deep understanding of people and how to achieve results, based on her many years’ experience working with large corporate clients around the world.
Since 2000 Ally has been working as an independent consultant, facilitator, trainer, and coach. She has collaborated with international business schools and has received national and international training awards.