How to Disagree with Someone More Powerful than You
Disagreements at the workplace are inevitable. Everyone has their own ideas, opinions and values, and it’s hardly likely that yours will be similar to those of your colleagues.
Actually, agreeing with your colleagues all the time is a bad thing, because it means that you are not competent or confident enough to have your own opinions and points of views.
While disagreements with colleagues are inevitable, they are not easy.
Still, most people are able to handle disagreements with colleagues when necessary.
When it comes to disagreeing with someone more powerful than you, however, such as your boss, things become a lot more difficult.
For example, imagine that your boss has just come up with a new initiative that he is very excited about. However, you have reason to believe that this initiative is unrealistic and will not work.
So, should you speak up and let him know that their thinking is flawed?
And if you decide to speak up, how do you do it while maintaining the good relationship you have with him?
WHY DISAGREEING WITH YOUR BOSS IS A DIFFICULT THING
There are several reasons why you might feel the need to disagree with your boss or someone more powerful than you.
For most of us, however, this is a difficult and anxiety-inducing situation.
Being afraid to disagree with someone who is more powerful than us is a reaction that comes naturally to all of us.
According to Joseph Greeny, cofounder of corporate training company VitalSmarts and coauthor of Crucial Conversations, this tendency to avoid confrontations with people more powerful than us is a result of our natural instincts to avoid situations that could be harmful to us.
When you think of disagreeing with someone more powerful than you, such as your boss, you immediately start thinking of all the negative implications that could stem from this.
You become worried that your boss might think you are a pain in the neck, he might hate you, or in extreme cases, he might even fire you.
To avoid these possibly negative outcomes, most people opt to keep their discontent to themselves and do as per the boss’s wishes. However, this is not the right thing to do.
If you want to be successful in your career and make positive contributions to the company you work for, you have to learn how to disagree with someone more powerful than you if the situation calls for it.
At the same time, it is good to note that there is a difference between just disagreeing and disagreeing disrespectfully.
If the senior person you are disagreeing with has any reason to believe (or even think) that you are just being disrespectful, things could go south for you very fast.
That said, below are some tips on how to disagree with someone more powerful than you while still maintaining their respect and a good relationship between the two of you.
BE REALISTIC ABOUT WHAT COULD HAPPEN
When we find ourselves in situations where we have to disagree with someone more senior than us, the first reaction for most people is to think about what could go wrong if we voice our disagreement.
The problem is that most of us are prone to catastrophizing.
We start thinking of the worst possible thing that might go wrong when we disagree with our boss.
In real sense, things will hardly go that way. While your boss might be surprised, or even a little upset when you voice your disagreement, it is highly unlikely that they will fire you or hate you forever just because of that, especially if you expressed your disagreement respectfully.
Therefore, you should be realistic about the worst thing that could happen if you speaking up and understand that it won’t lead to any negative impact on the long term.
Actually, the best way to set your mind at ease is to think about the risks of not speaking up.
For instance, if you are a nurse and notice something the doctor did doesn’t seem right, not speaking up could lead to complications for the patient.
Which is much better, risking getting the doctor upset or risking a patient’s life?
DECIDE WHETHER IT’S THE RIGHT TIME OR PLACE TO VOICE YOUR DISAGREEMENT
Sometimes, voicing your disagreement is not the problem.
The problem is about when and where you choose to do it. This is something you need to think about carefully before you voice your opinion.
Unless time is of the essence, it is not advisable to voice your disagreement immediately.
Take some time to think through the problem and consider the senior person’s point of view.
There is a chance that they might have considered something you have not thought of at the moment.
When you disagree with someone, of course they are not going to see your point right away. You might need to convince them why your way of doing things is better, or why you think what they are proposing will not work.
Waiting for a while before voicing your disagreement allows you to arm yourself with more points to back your opinion.
However, if action needs to be taken right away, you can voice your disagreement immediately, because there is no point in doing it later after the wrong action has been taken.
Aside from the timing, you also need to think about where to voice disagreement with someone more powerful than you. If you are in a team meeting where everyone is free to share their ideas and suggestions, there is nothing wrong with speaking up.
However, if you are in a public setting that is not a discussion, disagreeing with someone superior to you could be embarrassing to them and cause them to take offense.
In such situations, it is better to wait and share your opinion in a one-on-one conversation.
Voicing your disagreement in private will be less embarrassing for the powerful person and will make them feel less threatened.
START WITH SOMETHING POSITIVE
Just because you are disagreeing with someone, it doesn’t mean that their suggestion is so bad that there is no single nugget of wisdom in what they said.
Therefore, you shouldn’t just launch into a tirade explaining why they are wrong. This will only start the conversation on the wrong foot.
Instead, start by explaining your understanding of the powerful person’s point of view.
This shoes that you understand their reasoning and prevents the conversation from becoming an argument about what they really mean.
After explaining your understanding of their opinion or idea, mention something you like about their idea, and then use this as the starting point for your suggestion.
For instance, after explaining your understanding of their idea, you could say something like, “I agree with you that we need to do something to improve our customer experience. However, what if we did it using approach X?” If you voice your disagreement in such a manner, the conversation comes across as collaborative and friendly, rather than accusatory.
IDENTIFY A SHARED GOAL
In most cases, when you disagree with someone more powerful than you, one of the reasons they might get defensive is because they think your dissent is a threat to what they are trying to achieve.
The perceived intent of your disagreement is more likely to cause a defensive reaction than the content of your disagreement.
Therefore, if you want the powerful person to consider your point of view, you need to frame it in a context that shows that both of you have a common goal.
Before you start sharing your opinion, take a moment to think about what matters most to the powerful person. Is it making sure that the project gets done on time? Is it ensuring the credibility of his or her team? Once you figure this out, connect your disagreement to this goal that they are trying to achieve.
Don’t make the mistake of assuming that the powerful person will automatically know that you are on the same side.
Instead, contextualize your opinion in a way that shows that you care about your boss’s goal.
This way, you will be seen not as a disagreeable subordinate, but as a colleague who’s looking for the best way to achieve a common goal.
To do this, you need to adequately state the positive aspects of your idea and suggestion and show how they tie to what the superior person is trying to achieve.
For instance, if your boss is proposing that the team should hold a weekly meeting every Monday, but you think Wednesday’s are a better day for the meetings, here’s a great example of how to voice your disagreement.
“I really like your idea of holding a weekly team meeting. It is a great way of ensuring that everyone on the team is on the same page. However, I think it is much better to hold these meetings on Wednesdays instead of Mondays. Holding the meetings on Wednesdays will ensure that everyone is caught up from the weekend, which means the meetings will be more productive. What do you think?”
Sharing your disagreement this way makes it clear to the boss that you are not in any way threatening what they are trying to achieve. Instead, it shows you are trying to make what they want to achieve even more effective.
This way, instead of seeing your disagreement as a conflict, your boss will actually be happy with you because you are helping them achieve their goal more effectively.
REQUEST FOR PERMISSION TO DISAGREE
I know this might sound ridiculous on the face of it, but it is actually a very smart way of disagreeing with someone more powerful than you.
When you disagree with someone more powerful than you, there is the risk that they might think you are trying to undermine their authority.
By asking them for permission to disagree, you are giving them control and “psychological safety.”
You can ask for permission to disagree by saying something like, “I like the idea of improving our customer experience, but I have reasons to think that this is not the best approach. I’d like to explain my reasoning. Would that be okay?”
By asking such a question, you are giving the powerful person a chance to opt in to this conversation and therefore showing that they are still in control.
Once they agree to your request to voice your disagreement, this will also make you more confident, because you know you are not doing it unexpectedly or against their wishes.
ALWAYS REMAIN CALM AND COLLECTED
Due to the perceived risk of disagreeing with someone more powerful than you, it is normal to feel anxious. Your heart might start racing, your face might turn red, or you might start sweating.
However, if you want to be taken seriously, you need to try as much as possible to remain calm and collected.
If you are anxious when disagreeing with someone superior to you, your body language will undercut the message you are trying to pass.
The person might assume that you are not confident about what you are saying, which will decrease the likelihood of them paying proper attention to you.
To calm yourself down, try taking deep breaths before you start voicing your opinion, and then speak slowly and deliberately while sharing your opinion.
Talking slowly makes you sound more confident, even if you are anxious deep inside.
AVOID MAKING JUDGMENTS
It is very important to watch your language when it comes to sharing your dissenting opinion with someone more powerful than you.
Sure, your boss’s plan or idea might seem shortsighted, naïve, or hasty, but you should avoid using such judgment words when expressing your concerns.
Doing so can easily set off the powerful person, because these words can easily be misconstrued or taken personally.
Instead of using such judgment words, you should focus solely on stating facts.
For instance, instead of saying,
“Thinking that we can finish this project before the end of the year is being naïve,” you can say something like, “I don’t think that time frame is realistic. We have done two other similar projects, and they took us at least two months.”
When expressing your concerns, you should also be careful not to allow your emotions influence your words.
Sure, something about the powerful person’s ideas, opinion, or suggestion might have rattled your emotions, but you should only focus on logic and reasoning when sharing your concerns.
Not only will this make your argument more convincing, but it also reduces the chances that this person might take your disagreement personally.
Speaking of which, you should avoid getting personal at all costs when disagreeing with someone more powerful than you.
This means that you should not attack their ideas, opinions, or beliefs, or try to belittle the person because of their stand.
This will not help push your argument in any way, and will only serve to alienate the person.
Remember, the aim here is not to discredit the powerful person, but to suggest a better way of getting things done.
DON’T FORGET TO LISTEN
Our minds tend to treat disagreements as conflicts, and therefore, you might become too focused on defending your point of view that you stop paying attention to what your boss is saying.
Alternatively, you might be listening to what they are saying, but only so that you can counter them with your own arguments, instead of listening to understand their point of view.
Unfortunately, it is impossible to have a productive conversation when you are not paying attention to what the other party is saying.
Worse still, since this person is more powerful than you are, they can easily take this as being disrespectful.
Therefore, make sure that you are actively listening to their counter-arguments and their point of view.
Who knows, the two of you might even come up with a better solution by listening to each other and combining both your ideas.
USE “I” STATEMENTS
Consider the following two statements:
“You don’t know what you are talking about. If we do as you are suggesting, you’ll make it impossible for us to complete the project before the deadline.”
“I don’t think this will work. If we follow this approach, I don’t see us completing the project before the deadline.”
Both statements are basically saying the same thing, but one is a lot harsher than the other one. When you use “you” statements, it comes across as though you are attacking the other person. Of course, you don’t want to get yourself in a position where the more powerful person feels like you are attacking them personally.
On the other hand, using “I” statements allows you to pass the same message without coming across as aggressive. Such a subtle change to your message can have a huge impact on how the other party perceives it.
Just because you are disagreeing with your boss or superior doesn’t mean that your idea or point of view is the best one, therefore don’t try to shove it down their throat.
This will only come across as disrespect. Regardless of how much you have researched your argument, at the end of the day, it is still an opinion, not the gospel truth.
Therefore, it is always advisable to overtly state that you are simply offering your opinion.
For instance, instead of saying,
“Approach X will never achieve results. We should go with approach Y,” say something like, “This is just my opinion, but I don’t think approach X will achieve the desired results. What do you think about giving approach Y a try?”
Saying something like this creates room for dialogue and shows that you are open to hearing other points of view, even after having stated your position.
UNDERSTAND THAT THEY HAVE THE FINAL SAY
Even after voicing your disagreement, it is up to the person in power to make the decision on whether to accept or reject your ideas, opinion, or suggestions.
Therefore, it is important to acknowledge their authority after presenting your concerns. You can do this by saying something like, “That’s just my opinion.
This is up to you to decide the way forward,” or “I know you’ll make the call on this.” Saying something like this shows that you are not in any way trying to undermine their authority. It also reminds them that they have choices.
So, what happens after you make your point and your boss (or whoever is in power) rules against it and decides to proceed with whatever plan of action you disagree with?
In such a situation, you might be tempted to stick to your guns and insist on the validity of your suggestion or idea.
Unfortunately, this will not do you any good. Not only will they still go according to their original plans, but you will also have lost their respect for you.
Since they are the one with the authority to make the final decision, you should respect whatever decision they make, even if it might not be the one you wanted.
Sure, it might feel hard having to swallow your pride and walk away, especially when you have a strong conviction about your point of view, but ultimately, this is the best thing to do.
Not only should you respect their final decision, you should also support your superior by going along with what they ask. Don’t try to sabotage their plan or course of action because they have ruled against your suggestion.
If they listened to your suggestion and still decided to stick to their original approach, they have their reasons.
Probably they have some information you do not, or they have taken into consideration factors you might not be aware of.
The least you can do is to support their decision. This shows that you still have faith in their judgment.
For most people, thinking about speaking up and voicing their disagreement with a boss or someone more powerful than them is enough to send them into a panic.
In spite of this, learning how to disagree with someone more powerful than you is a very crucial skill to learn, and in most cases, it won’t lead to any of the negative outcomes you might be conjuring up in your mind. At the same time, you still need to do it respectfully.
By following the tips shared in this article, you will be able to disagree with your superiors while still maintaining the cordial relationships you have with them and earning their respect.
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