How to Disagree without Being Disagreeable
By Neena Newberry, MBA '92
Last week I had an interesting lunch conversation with a successful female business leader here in Dallas. We discussed how difficult it can be for some women to voice a difference of opinion in a way that will be well-received (i.e., not too assertive). On the other hand, saying nothing can have negative consequences of its own (i.e., being viewed as not assertive enough). So, if you’ve found yourself waffling back and forth about whether to speak up or bite your tongue, read on.
1. Don’t be a derailer.
I want you to think back to a time when you sat in a meeting thinking to yourself, “I don’t agree with the direction we are heading in” and then you didn’t say a word. Perhaps you thought it was the wrong forum in which to voice your concerns.
What was the impact of your choice? Did you catch people off guard by not speaking up in that moment and later sharing privately that you had major concerns? Regardless of your intent, how were you viewed? Did some think you were being passive-aggressive or maybe not assertive enough? Did others wonder, “Why didn’t she just say something when we were all there? It could have saved us a lot of time.” Also recognize that others may have unvoiced concerns, so by speaking up you might just give them the courage to share them.
Finally, remember that you can express a different point of view in the moment without turning it into a big deal. For example, if your concerns will warrant a lot more discussion, you can suggest an offline discussion with a smaller group if that makes sense. The next two strategies below might also help.
2. Frame your disagreement as “Yes and…”
Before you highlight points of concern, acknowledge areas of alignment. By first demonstrating that you “get it” (i.e., that you understand the other person’s point of view and what could work well) others will be more open to your perspective.
Some people fall into the trap of jumping straight into what they think won’t work, which can trigger defensiveness--and then they entirely forget to point out what they DO like about the idea. So, challenge yourself to say, “Yes and…” instead of “No, but…”
3. Depersonalize your comments.
Finally, remember to keep it objective by evaluating each idea against the intended outcomes. In other words, point out the criteria for success (stated or implied) and help others understand how the ideas on the table do or don’t satisfy them. This makes the evaluation of the ideas feel much less personal, and the originator of the idea is less likely to feel attacked when you give your feedback. By framing your suggestions in the context of the group’s objectives, others will be more receptive to what you have to say.
Sometimes saving your disagreement for another time is indeed the best option. But in many cases, it may not be. My goal today was to challenge you to be more assertive in expressing your views while considering the impact on how you’re viewed as a leader. So, before you move on with your day, take a minute to identify one step you’ll take to put these ideas into play this week.
Neena Newberry is an executive coach and consultant with operations in Dallas and Houston. She is the president of Newberry Executive Coaching and Consulting LLC and has over 17 years of experience coaching and advising clients in midsize to Fortune 500 companies. She works with high performing managers and leaders to get even better results and specializes in working with women in dual career families. Sign up for her’s weekly articles by visiting the top right-hand corner of her company home page.