Disagreement is Good for Business. Agreed?

By Kurt Birkenhagen · October 3, 2017

I disagree with you.

Chances are those four words made you uncomfortable. Do we have a conflict here? Conflicts make most people uncomfortable. You’re probably uncomfortable now. This is an article about disagreeing.

What we have here is a communications issue.

You’ve been there. You’re in a meeting thinking, “No… this is all wrong.” You want to speak up, but left the meeting without doing so. You could have. You should have. But you didn’t. Perhaps you didn’t know how to disagree in a productive way.

Let’s hear from experts on the subject.

Joel Garfinkle, is the author of Getting Ahead: Three Steps to Take Your Career to the Next Level, and one of today’s top executive coaches. Joel writes, “Sharing your opinions during meetings—even if they are contrary to what others might be saying—is necessary for others to see you as part of the conversation.”

He believes you need not attend the meeting at all if you don’t have something to say. “People only become aware of your experience, knowledge capital, and expertise if you share at meetings,” writes Garfinkle.

“Your coworkers lose because they don’t get the benefit of your opinions and knowledge. They miss out on the suggestions and valuable information you could potentially share. Good leaders want people who disagree. They want to be challenged with counter opinions.”

Margaret Heffernan has much to say on the subject. Heffernan, author of The Naked Truth: A Working Woman’s Manifesto about Business and Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at our Peril, is described on Wikipedia as a voice “of critical challenge” who takes little at face value and regularly questions received wisdom.

In an exciting 12-minute presentation on TEDTalks, she makes the case that “thinking partners” aren’t echo chambers—or shouldn’t be.

Margaret claims organizations often refuse to think because the people inside of them are too afraid of conflict. She tells the audience when we dare to break the silence—when we create conflict—we enable ourselves and the people around us to do their very best thinking. Amen Margaret.

Disagree like a pro.

Here are some helpful tips for making disagreements productive and professional.

Share your knowledge

Speak up. Share your expertise without being fearful. Become a valuable part of the conversation making sure your ideas are heard.

Be a mirror

When disagreeing, repeat what you disagree with. Help the group know you’re listening and understand. When this is clear, they are far more likely to listen carefully to your point of view.

Prepare to disagree

When you’re headed to a meeting you know will include some disagreement, prepare yourself by imagining reasons why others might question your opinion. Come up with logical arguments to counter the viewpoints.

Value yourself

Believe in your importance and be confident you have expertise and value. Then, when sharing, elevate the conversation to another level.

Think about the goal

The goal is to solve the problem. So remember your opinion might counter the popular opinion, but you’re there to help find a solution. This type of mentality should help you overcome the fear of rejection.

Disagree agreeably.

Lincoln Mullen, a contributor to the ProfHacker blog offers a series of tips for disagreeing with civility. Disagreement is easier to deal with from friends. Build relationships with colleagues and you earn the right to disagree with them.

  • Make your questions empirical. Propose questions that can be answered with evidence rather than opinion.
  • Skip the small stuff. Focus on the telling points.
  • Don’t be offended by the truth.
  • Ask questions instead of making arguments.
  • Have at least one specific reason why you know the idea won’t work.
  • Provide an alternative idea and explain why it’s better.

Separate the people from the problem. As I hit on earlier, the goal is to solve the problem and for a disagreement to be a healthy and productive one, all parties involved must remind themselves of this. Take the initiative to do so if the disagreement becomes personal. It shouldn’t be.

In his interesting Prezi presentation, Managing Conflict Productively, by Taylor McCarthy, you’re reminded to separate the people from the problem. Aim to extract the emotions, which are bound to cloud objectivity. Avoid seeing the counter-argument as “the enemy.” It’s simply another perspective.

Coming out of a disagreement with a healthy exchange of new ideas relies on negotiation skills and objectivity. Hopefully, some of the tips shared here will make your disagreements good for business.


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