“Honest disagreement is often a sign of progress.” —Mohandas Gandhi
Disagreement is not a bad thing, if used and handled correctly. Unfortunately, very few people can handle a disagreement well.
This post provides some tips on how to disagree with someone. I wrote this based on my own experiences and conversations with a few smart people who were good at gracefully handling disagreements. Here's what I learned from those experiences.
1. Plan to disagree [gracefully] long before the conversation takes place. A conversation happens at a certain point in your life continuum. What happened between you and the person with whom you're talking before that point in the continuum affects how a disagreement will be handled by both parties. If the person trusts that you care enough for him or her, half the battle is won.
I have friends who sometimes tell me that I am out of my mind, and I am totally fine with it. I sometimes tell them the same thing, and they are fine with it, too. Our relationship wasn't like this from the day we met, but the trust was built over a long period of time. And now we each know that the other doesn't mean any harm. So we are totally comfortable to disagree with one another.
2. Mentally clarify the purpose of your disagreement. Note the word “mentally” here. You don’t have to announce the purpose of your disagreement. In fact, it might just backfire. Instead, make sure that you understand why you're disagreeing, and allow the other person to make an assessment of your purpose using other characteristics—like your posture, mood, tone and demeanor.
Sometimes you may want to prove the other person wrong. If that's what your aim is, this is the time to reset it. Proving someone wrong is a lose-lose proposition that looks like a win-lose proposition. Think about it; you don't want to be proven wrong, and for exactly the same reasons they don't want to be proven wrong either.
3. Clearly show that the focus is on the issue at hand. If you are not able to clearly demonstrate this, it is easy for the other person to misunderstand and assume that your goals is to prove them wrong. The natural response in these situations is to be defensive, and when that happens neither of you win. Your goal has to be to convince the other person to join your side of the table so that you both can look at the issue together and come to a conclusion.
4. Get explicit permission to disagree. No, I am not suggesting that you should say something, like "I want to disagree with you, and I want your permission." There are many ways to get explicit permission without directly asking for it. An example would be the following. You can say, "I am struggling here a little bit as I am seeing this differently from how you are seeing it. I don't know how to nicely say it so that you don't get it the wrong way. What do you suggest I do?" Most people will respond by saying, "Hey, bring it on. I would love to hear an alternate opinion" or something of that sort.
5. Ask for alternate options from the other person. You will be amazed by how easily some problems will get solved when you just ask questions. When the other person presents an opinion, ask them about the details of their plan so that they're forced to think them through. Oftentimes the other person will change his opinion as he realizes the flaws in his proposition (the devil is indeed in the details).
6. Use analogies extensively. I remember reading that teaching is really just moving somone from a known to an unknown. The other person currently strongly believes that he is right. Rather than disagreeing openly, you can start with an analogy that will immediately take him to a place that’s familiar to him. You can then lead him back to the issue at hand by showing the similarities between the analogy and the topic at hand.
This is easier said than done, of course. Just like any other skill, you have to work at it, starting with investing heavily on reading far and wide.
7. Save their face in public but send a clear message in private. This is where all the tact comes through. The way you craft your message should save their face in public. But, in private, they should know that their thinking was flawed and that they need to work on getting better. There is no simple way to do it except to observe how other people (for example, good mentors or coaches) do it when you are on the receiving end.
In summary, don’t be stressed out by disagreements. You will never get good at handling disagreements by avoiding them. Use every disagreement as an opportunity to learn and grow.
Photo credit: Courtesy pchangrak