How to Disagree Agreeably

  • Your new co-worker is proposing a project that was tried before she arrived and failed.
  • Your boss suggests a direction you think will be a disaster.
  • Your lunch-mate is sharing a “fact” you know has been debunked.

Situations like these are commonplace. Someone says something you either know to be wrong or with which you disagree. How you respond determines how you will be perceived by them and others present, as well as how receptive they will be to hearing your point of view.

What you say next and how you say it set the tone.

If you blurt, “We tried that and it failed,” “That’s not a good idea,” “That’s just not true,” “That is wrong,” or “You’re ill-informed,” or worse, “That’s a lie,” you have lost the argument. Even if what you say is more rational, proven and accepted by experts.

So what can you say that will allow (at least for a while) a sane discussion instead of a shouting match? How do you start?

  • First, be especially mindful of your tone of voice. The right words can sound wrong if there is irritation in your voice. You want to sound calm, open and interested.
  • Clarify anything that seems illogical to you. Do your best TV detective Columbo imitation. Detective Columbo used self-degradation to get his suspect to flesh out their reasoning and then they’d often stumble when he asked simple questions. You don’t want to then yell, “Gotcha,” as no one respects a gloater. Avoid starting with “why” as it can sound confrontational.

“I may be having a brain burp, but I’m not seeing how x leads to y. Can you help me understand your thinking that got you to that conclusion?”
“I hear your idea and I’m not seeing how it will work out the way you describe. Can we go back to where you said ….?”
“I tracked your thinking up to x point. Then I lost you as I don’t see how you got to the next step. What am I missing?”
“Help me understand how we’d make sure to avoid…”
“I’m guessing you have a plan to ensure we’d not have x happen. Can you help me understand that plan?”

  • Point out where you agree.

“I agree with your point about… ”
“You make a good case for …”
“Your point on x is valid.”

  • Validate that you understand their point of view. Acknowledging doesn’t mean you agree.

“I can see how that could make sense.”
“I understand your perspective.”
“I can see how that could seem like a good solution.”
“I know what you’re saying could solve some of what we’re trying to accomplish.”

  • Introduce your doubts as a professional journalist would. They probe for deeper understanding without pushing back as themselves, but asking how others might have trouble understanding.

“What would you say to others who would doubt that x will result in y?”
“Some people might wonder how you came to that conclusion. How would you explain it to them?”

  • Introduce your opinion diplomatically.

“While I agree with x, y and z, here’s where we diverge…”
“I’d like to share a different perspective.”
“Let me offer another option.”
“I’d like to present an opposite point of view so we are sure to explore various opinions.”

  • Avoid, at all costs, personally disparaging the other. Do not say something like,

“With your (profession, education level, university, state, country, IQ, gender) you would not have full information.”
“That makes no sense.”
“That’s just stupid.”
“You people (e.g., HR folks, engineers, women, men, Gen Xers, Boomers) all think alike.”

  • If the other person denigrates you, you can:

Ignore the comment and stay on the topic.
Say, “That has no bearing on this discussion. Let’s stay focused on the topic.”
“That was out of line. I’d appreciate your staying professional and focus on the ideas being shared.”

Can you avoid all confrontational conversations? Of course not. Some people are so entrenched in their way of thinking they are offended that anyone would not see they are right. Your job is to avoid being one of them. 🙂

Instead, you’ll have a more productive conversation if you stay calm and respectful, even if the other person doesn’t. If the conversation begins to degenerate, don’t get sucked down with it.

Try some of these ideas when you’re with a friend, stating first that you want to try some new skills and you need a practice partner. Let him/her in on what you’re doing and want to practice. Then mutually agree on a topic to disagree on — ideally adopting a mock stance on the issue. Afterwards, discuss what worked, how you both felt at various times in the discussion, and what you could do differently to be more effective next time.

When you are able to learn to disagree agreeably, without getting upset, you will be open to at least understanding a different perspective, even if you don’t agree with it. And in many cases, you’ll jointly come up with an better solution than either of you would have thought of on your own.