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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

How to Disagree With a Co-Worker (and Not Want to Punch Each Other)

Picture this: You’re working on a big project or starting your own business—and you’re partnering with a colleague. You have a tight relationship with your partner in crime and would even venture to say you’re friends. So working together should be great, right?

Sometimes, people have this idea that just because they’re friends or have a really good working relationship with someone means they should live harmonious existences and skip off into the sunset hand in hand. But the reality of professional collaborations is that disagreements will inevitably pop up. And when they do, they can be hairy—especially if you already have a close-knit relationship. Can you respectfully disagree with this person? Can the project move forward? Can the relationship be repaired?

Generally, the answer to all of these questions is a resounding “yes.” In fact, disagreements can ultimately lead to better ideas, more productivity and—gasp!—a stronger relationship.

But how? Next time you’re facing a situation where you’re butting heads with a co-worker, follow these six steps to handle the disagreement gracefully—and potentially even find a solution that lets everybody win.

1. Get Offline

Yes, it can be tempting to continue sending long, passive-aggressive emails explaining your point of view, but in the end that’s not going to lead you anywhere. In fact, there are only two acceptable forms of communication when it comes to talking through a disagreement: in-person, or over the phone or video chat if in-person isn’t feasible.

Why? First and foremost, you can both read body language and hear intonations in each other’s voices this way, leading to fewer misunderstandings (how many times has something come across as snarky in an email, when you only meant it as explanatory?).

Secondly, talking in person also helps you both remember that you’re talking to a person—presumably a person you like—not just a computer screen. This will make it easier to be sympathetic and make it more likely that you’ll do your best to work together to find a solution, rather than fight against each other.

2. Listen More Than You Speak

When in the heat of the moment and trying your best to make a point, it can be easy to keep blabbering on and not let the other person get a word in edgewise.

But here’s the cold, hard truth: Talking more does not make your argument stronger. There’s no rule that whoever speaks longest, loudest, or first “wins.” In fact, the more you talk, the more likely your colleague is going to reach a point where he or she starts zoning out (think the of the teacher’s drone from Peanuts: “wah wahhh wah wahhh wah wahhh”).

Instead, aim to listen more than you speak. Even if you think the other party is not following this rule, do it. Trust me, you will get a chance to speak, and by giving your partner his or her due time, there’s a better chance he or she will actually pay attention when you’re sharing your opinion.

If you really do feel like your colleague is dominating the entire conversation, try “Can I stop you right there for just a second? You said something just now that I wanted to comment on.” It’ll still make the other person feel heard, while letting you get a word in edgewise.

3. Really Listen

Noticing a theme here? This is the pivotal point where conversations and disagreements really go awry. I make this a separate point because listening is not just waiting patiently for the other person to finish talking. It’s essential that you’re really paying attention—not just planning out what you want to say once he or she is finished speaking.

There are a couple tactics you can use to stay focused. If the conversation is on the phone and the other person can’t see you, jot a couple of words on a pad of paper to remind yourself of your point so that you can go immediately back to focusing on the conversation. If you’re face to face, try centering yourself before you go into the conversation so you can keep your mind focused where it needs to be.

This sets you up for success for a couple reasons. Like above, the other person feels respected in the conversation. Hearing his or her opinion out will also help you create a stronger argument for your own. It’s even possible that the other person will say something that causes you to think in new, more collaborative ways—something you’ll miss if you’re solely focused on getting the words out of your own mouth.

4. Acknowledge What They’re Saying

Now that you’re actually paying attention, make sure to show ’em you’ve heard ’em! (Ever been in an argument with a loved one, and have no indication that he or she even registered what you said? Doesn’t feel good.)

There are a couple things to do to make sure the other person feels heard. First, make sure to use empathy in your response: “I just want to say that I’m sorry you’re feeling this way about the situation. I’ve totally been there before and it’s not a great place to be.” Once you meet the other person where he or she is at, you can then approach the issue from common ground.

Second, try explaining your understanding of the situation. This means going beyond “yep” or “got it” and saying something like, “It sounds like the project was delayed, and you’re not happy with my potential role in this delay.” You’re showing your co-worker both that you understand what happened and his or her feelings about the situation.

5. Come From a Place of Curiosity, Not Interrogation

When you do get your turn to talk, speak deliberately, and be careful not to word vomit all of your points out at once (which can come off as a litany of grievances you had pent up while listening). Ask the person to clarify any points on which you need further understanding, and listen again thoughtfully as he or she clarifies.

Most importantly, try to come from a place of wanting a shared resolution. I had a co-worker a few years back who for some reason, thought I was out to get her. I noticed her harsh words and passive aggressive nature and realized that to continue working with her in a productive way, we had to chat. I started out the conversation with, “I think we started on the wrong foot for whatever reason, and I want to get back on the right track. Your work is amazing, and I want to learn from you. How can we get to that place?”

6. Revisit the Mission

If all else fails and you’re having a hard time breaking through the disagreement, try revisiting why you’re doing this in the first place. Interrogate the reality of the situation and the reasons for which you are both dedicated to the project. Is the mission still in tact or the same? Have your visions diverged?

Sometimes, taking a step back when you’re in the thick of an argument and going back to shared values can help reset the situation, giving you renewed motivation to find middle ground.

Of course, it may turn out that you go through these approaches, and things are still misaligned. If so, there may come a point where you have to make a tough decision about whether or not it makes sense to continue with the project together. And if not? That’s okay.

But, with any luck, using the steps above will decrease the likelihood of that happening. Instead, you’ll have a constructive conversation with your partner, learning more about each other and coming to a compromise that makes you both happy.

Note: A resource that has been invaluable to me as I have worked with clients on professional disagreements they’ve been having is Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott.

Have you ever been in a situation where there was discord among your colleagues? What did you do to resolve it? Leave a comment in the section below!

Photo of boxing gloves courtesy of Shutterstock.