Many years ago, one of my managers praised me in an annual review by noting that I had the ability to tell clients or colleagues “no” without actually making them feel like I was saying so. I considered that high praise—given how difficult it can be to even imply you might not agree with someone in a professional setting (and how hard I had worked on the skill over the years).
Part of what makes having a disagreement so difficult is the potential for being misunderstood and, in the worst-case scenario, being perceived as a jerk. No one likes to hear an opinion or method shot to pieces by someone else, so whenever you’re engaging in a disagreement in the office, you’re treading in dangerous waters.
Fortunately, over the years, I learned that disagreeing with someone in the office doesn’t have to be disagreeable—and doesn’t have to make you out to be the office meanie. Here’s how to voice your opinion professionally, without stepping on anyone’s toes in the process.
Don't: Be a Jerk
Perhaps this sounds obvious, but when in the throes of a disagreement, it’s shockingly easy to forget our manners and let our competitive sides take over. After all, you have an opinion and you want it heard, right? While this may be true, how you go about voicing that opinion can make the difference between friendly discourse and you being branded the office jerk.
Take one of my colleagues from my brief and tumultuous stint at a magazine many years ago (we’ll call him Tom). Tom was brilliant, and everyone knew it. He’d been in the industry for ages, and he almost always knew how things should be done.
Problem was, he knew it. And when someone else would voice a new idea or share a suggestion, Tom would often respond by blurting out things like, “No, you’re wrong,” or “That would never work,” and my favorite, “Are you stupid?” Seriously. Not cool, Tom.
You may be the smartest person in the room, but shoving your view down everyone’s throat is sure to win you enemies, not to mention render your opinion useless. Here’s a trick I often try: Imagine someone you admire saying exactly what you’re about to say to you, and gauge how you’d feel. Unless your idol is Gordon Gekko, I’m guessing your internal filter will remind you to tone it down.
Don't: Sugarcoat the Situation
That said, you don’t want to go to the other extreme, either. In fact, one of the biggest mistakes we can make when disagreeing with someone is sugarcoating the feedback. While empathy is a must, trying to bury the sting of dissent under a pile of saccharin pleasantries won’t help your cause. In fact, it might even make things worse.
Several years back, I had a colleague who was trying to tell me he disagreed with my approach to handling a sensitive client situation. This was an important client, a lot was at stake, and we needed to address the issue quickly. But, because he was so afraid to disagree with me, he hemmed and hawed and poured on all sorts of praise for projects I’d worked on in the past or skills that were completely irrelevant to the task at hand.
When I was finally able to get him to spit it out, it turned out he had some really good ideas, and we went his direction instead of mine. But, while the matter was handled the best way possible, the amount of frustration and time wasted by his inability to speak his mind forever pegged him as indecisive (and, dare I say, a little spineless).
While it’s only natural to try to balance criticism with praise, there’s a difference between being empathetic and laying it on too thick. Lean toward empathetic, and leave the sugar coating to the guy at the donut shop.
Do: Find a Balance
As with many things in our professional—and personal—lives, finding the right balance is key, and it’s no different when you’re having a disagreement.
I experienced this firsthand when a (very skilled) manager once delivered the news to me that the first draft of a press release I’d written was basically all wrong. While he easily could’ve taken Tom's approach and simply told me he completely disagreed with my approach, he instead found ways to get me to talk through my thinking. He found ways to compliment my work and softened his criticism in such a way that I’d still hear the feedback and correct the mistake, without feeling like it was a personal attack. He phrased his feedback in non-persona, non-accusatory ways like, “I like what you did here, and that would work really well for an announcement about a new product. For this type of news, it would be helpful if we covered A, B, and C.”
By finding some merit in what I’d obviously worked very hard to construct, he immediately disarmed me, and instead, I was ready to listen and instantly transitioned into learning mode. Mission accomplished.
Although I can’t guarantee you’ll always enjoy disagreeing with someone in the office, if you follow these guidelines, you can assure you won’t come off like a jerk (or spineless) when you do. And that’s something I think most of us would agree is a good thing.