How to Disagree with Someone Who Is Your Superior
From the playground to the workplace, throughout your life you won’t always see things from other people’s perspective. There will be many times where you don’t agree with someone else’s point of view. Your manager asks you to complete a task you think would be more suited to another employee. Your boss suggests a new idea that in your opinion won’t be successful.
What do you do in this situation? The person you disagree with has more power than you. Do you say something? Do you bite your tongue? What should you say, and when?
Co-author of Crucial Conversations, Joseph Grenny, says we as humans rebel against conflict with our superiors. “Our bodies specialize in survival, so we have a natural bias to avoid situations that might harm us,” he says.
Barbara Dyer, CEO and President of the Hitachi foundation, agrees. “People are fragile,” she writes in an article for Fortune, “disagreement in the workplace can be threatening and even toxic.”
With the risk of losing rapport with your boss, or even losing your job, it often seems easier to agree. So how do you disagree the right way with someone of a higher status?
Be honest with yourself about the outcome
When people think about confrontation, they immediately turn to the worst possible outcome. You imagine the most nightmarish think that could happen. You could be yelled at in front of everyone. Your pay could be docked. What you need to do is be realistic. Weigh the pros and cons. Assess the risks, and decide whether speaking up will be worth it.
Decide when to act
Author of Failure to Communicate, Holly Weeks, says sometimes it might be best to wait before saying anything. Perhaps “you haven’t finished thinking the problem through, the whole discussion was a surprise to you, or you want to get a clearer sense of what the group thinks,” she says. “If you think other people are going to disagree too, you might want to gather your army first.” Other people may be able to contribute ideas, valuable insight or support. What’s more this allows the discussion to continue in a less public place. This way you can a planned, measured discussion without your superior feeling threatened.
Work towards a common goal
You could come out and state your opinion, and this may work. But this does not identify why the person is making the decision in the first place. Take some time to find some common ground, and understand what they are working towards. What are their motives and values? If you make the disagreement relevant to your shared goal, you will come to the table on more equal footing.
Ask permission to say offer a differing view
Asking permission to say something may seem old fashioned, but it leaves control in the hands of your superior. When they feel like they are negotiating from a position of power, they may feel more comfortable. If they say yes to you voicing opposition, you will both feel more comfortable going forward.
Remain in control
In a situation of conflict it is easy for tensions to flare. You could be feeling scared or Your heart could be racing and your mouth dry. But try to promote the appearance of being calm and collected. Dr. Albert Mehrabian, author of Silent Messages found in his research that up to 55% of a message is communicated nonverbally. If you are reluctant or shifty in your posture, this will create mixed messages. You have to ensure your words and body language agree with each other. Take deep breaths, and slow down your words. A measured, deliberate voice can reassure both parties.
Stress that you understand
Before you finish your pitch, interjection, or counterargument, return to the person’s own ideas. Liza Landsman, CMO of E-Trade Financial, explains, “elevating to your boss’s level of thinking can help you build credibility, become a more trusted counsel and grow professionally.” If you can explain their view back to them, your boss will see you are knowledgeable. You aren’t fighting about something you don’t understand.
Remain impartial where possible
You can raise a conflicting point or idea without being accusatory. As Landsman says, “bring data and robust situational analysis to the conversation, rather than beliefs or feelings.” Often using judgemental words, like “hasty” or “ill-conceived,” can set the person on edge. Focus on the problem, not the players. Instead of suggesting that a strategy lacks experience or forethought, try suggesting that you look at it again from another angle. Something like “we have worked on projects before that could have progressed more efficiently with a second set of eyes. Perhaps we could try that here.”
Your opinion isn’t the be all end all. You may have taken these steps to ensure it’s thought out and supported, but everyone has their own opinion. Don’t overstep your bounds, and project false confidence. Humbly submit your opinion with certainty but not insolence. Try starting sentences with phrases such as “I’m just thinking aloud here,” or “I’m not sure if I’m missing something, but…” These are leading phrases, which allow you to say your opinion without blocking yourself off to other ideas. Be curious about what everyone has to say. You may genuinely be convinced. And if not, you have still spoken your piece.
Acknowledge their superiority
At the end of the day, you are not the person who has the final say. You must acknowledge that the decision is not in your hands. This shows that while you are willing to put your ideas forward, you’re not going to overstep where you aren’t welcome. Be firm in your ideas and don’t backtrack, but say things like “this is your decision.”
So remember, if the situation or decision is important enough to disagree with your superior, make sure you ask first. E.g. “I think I have an idea about this particular section. Would it be okay if I tell you about it?” Make it clear you understand where your boss is coming from. E.g. “I know we’ve decided to work this way because of the time constraints, and that makes sense to me because this is a fast order and the customers are impatient.” Finally, make sure you talk slowly and clearly, ensuring your body language agrees with your words.
Don’t say anything accusatory. Try sticking to facts, but make sure you get your point across. Don’t overthink it and worry that you will lose your career. If the disagreement is worth saying, take time to formulate it, and you may come out all the better.