How to Disagree in a Constructive Way at Work

You might think you’re really good at disagreeing; you’ve been doing it since you were young and your parents first said you couldn’t have something. As you’ve got older, you might have noticed that it’s become less and less acceptable to throw yourself on the floor and throw a tantrum, and now you’re in the workplace you definitely shouldn’t be resorting to that kind of childishness unless you want to risk losing your job.

The problem with disagreeing at work is that it doesn’t get you anywhere. If you constantly disagree with someone, it will eventually get to the point where you can’t stand them, and having someone you can’t stand is not a good way to enjoy work more. Disagreements that aren’t solved can become conflicts, and those conflicts can then spread beyond just the two of you - and if you’re really unlucky, it will get to the point where your irreconcilable differences end your employment.

See Also: How to Disagree with your Boss Without Losing your Job

It isn’t possible to never have disagreements in life. It especially isn’t possible to never have disagreements at work, where most of the people are already miserable and some may think starting an argument is a way to break the tedium. So if we accept the fact that they’re difficult to avoid, we find that what we should do is prevent them from coming too disruptive, and that is by disagreeing constructively. In other words, rather than deciding you’re right and refusing to budge, learn how to compromise and see the other side. Here’s how:

1. Think Before You Speak

Do you know the #1 way disagreements start? Person A disagrees with something Person B has said and tells them so. They don’t take a minute - or even a moment - to think about what has actually been said or why, they just explosively react to what they heard or what they think they heard. If they would just stop and think, clarify the position and ask questions to find out why their colleague holds that position, there would be no need for any bad words to be said.

So, rather than reacting to something and taking it personally, take the time to think about what they’re actually saying; are you the one who’s forgotten about your common goals for a moment? If you find that you don’t understand their position, then ask some questions to fix that. Ask, and listen, and not only will that understanding lead to a resolution, but your show of empathy will ensure their response is also kind if the situation is ever reversed.

Equally, you should always wait until you’ve calmed down. It’s one thing to feel passionate about something, but if you start getting emotional then you’ll start making it personal even if it was never intended as a personal attack. Taking the time to cool down and think about it rationally will help you form a better argument, and when you make that argument you should do it in a lower voice; it reduces the tension, it’s unexpected, and it forces the other person to listen.

2. Pick Your Battles

First, you should always make sure there is a disagreement before you say anything. This might sound like a silly example, but it’s one that could happen if you are ever tired, or distracted, or already on edge:

  • [Monday morning]
  • Person A: It should be ready in two days.
  • Person B: But we need it by Thursday! Why can’t it be done any faster?
  • [argument ensues]

There is no problem; it’ll be ready on time. But Person B was so stressed about the deadline that "two days" might as well have been "never" and they snapped. These are minor disagreements because of wording or because we forget that two things don’t need to be mutually exclusive all the time.

If there really is a problem, then decide whether or not you should speak up; is it really worth the bad mood, the high emotion and the damaged relationship? Don’t forget that even when you win, you lose, as you can’t take back the things you’ve said and your relationship will never be as good as it was before. Sometimes you just have to agree to disagree, but ideally not before you’ve at least taken the time to try and understand their feelings.  

3. Finding a Resolution is More Important Than Being Right

I know, if you’re right, you want to be right, and you don’t want to stop the argument without the other person accepting that fact. While you might feel satisfied if you do manage to get everyone to agree that the sky is purple, you will have ruined your relationships with those people, it was probably more of a rant than a two-sided argument, and their silence doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve won; it can just mean they’ve given up.

Here’s something to remember: any time you insist that you’re right and the other person is wrong, you’re also suggesting that you’re smarter or better than the other person. Does putting them down really seem like a good way to show them respect, or to be in a position to expect respect? No. Put your ego aside and focus on the problem rather than the person; you may actually find there are multiple solutions to the issue. If neither of you can manage to fully agree on one, perhaps you can use the best of both ideas to come up with a compromise that you’re equally happy (or unhappy) with.

You should also learn to put the past behind you; when there’s a disagreement, resolve it and then let it go. No two situations are the same as circumstances and people change, so even if something similar were to happen again there’s no reason why you need to dig up the old emotions.

4. Stay Open Minded

Disagreements often happen because we’re set in our ways and we want everyone else to see things the same way we do. Imagine what the world would be like if we were all so similar; it would be pretty boring and businesses would never advance because people would never have new ideas. There would be no competition because we wouldn’t need more than one company handling each thing that we need.

With that in mind, put aside your need to have the superior beliefs and embrace everyone’s differences. You never know what you might discover if you take the time to actually listen to people who think differently to you - every interaction is an opportunity to learn and to work together to come up with new and better ideas and decisions. There’s nothing wrong with sharing your knowledge - after all, listening works both ways - but see it as an opportunity to share rather than lecture.

As great as it might be to live in world where everyone always agrees with you, you should actually be grateful to those who question you. It forces you to think about things differently, to realize that you aren’t as perfect as you think you are, and to build stronger relationships with them. Even bosses should be happy when someone is willing to speak up and point them in the right direction, as long as it’s done constructively rather than rudely.

5. Keep it Private

Even if you think you’re right to be speaking on behalf of others, don’t automatically assume they want you throwing around words like "we" and "us"; let them pick their own battles - or choose not to fight - and speak only for yourself. Let the other person know how you’re feeling without making them wonder who "we" is, and keep it honest and authentic, rather than telling them what they did wrong and criticizing them; if you can be prepared to listen to their side, you may just find that they were doing the right thing all along.

When you do choose to have a disagreement with someone, keep it private- whether you go in an empty room or send a private email rather than copying anyone in. Having others around can lead to heightened emotions and a mob mentality that can make the other person feel like they’re being attacked - and the more people they’re facing, the harder it is for them to try and defend themselves. Keep things fair by keeping it quiet, and save the huge blow ups for when it really matters.

Disagreements are always going to happen, but it’s up to you whether they’re easily resolved and put behind you, or they grow into bigger issues that affect the workplace so much that productivity suffers. The entire point of having a workforce comprised of many different types of people is that they should feed off each other and use each other’s different ways of thinking to improve the work they do. That can only happen if they accept each other and work through disagreements rather than getting into screaming matches that end with them being sent to the time out corner.

How do you handle disagreements in your workplace? What is the worst disagreement you’ve ever had with someone? Let us know below…