How to Disagree with Someone More Powerful than You

Your boss proposes a new initiative you think won’t work or a senior colleague outlines a project timeline you think is unrealistic. So, what do you say when you disagree with someone who has more power than you? How do you decide, whether it’s worth speaking up? And if you do, what exactly should you say?

Experts say, it’s a natural human reaction to shy away from disagreeing with a superior. As per Joseph Grenny, the co-author of Crucial Conversations, our bodies specialize in survival, so we have a natural bias to avoid situations that might harm us. Holly Weeks, the author of Failure to Communicate, adds that ‘The heart of the anxiety is that there will be negative implications.’ We immediately think she’s not going to like me, she’s going to think I’m a pain, or maybe even I’ll get fired.

Although, it’s just plain easier to agree, that’s not always the right thing to do. Here’s how to disagree with someone more powerful than you.

Be realistic about the risks
Most people tend to overplay the risks involved in speaking up. Yes, your counterpart might be surprised and a little upset at first. But chances are you’re not going to get fired or make a lifelong enemy. However, the risks of not speaking up could be the project getting derailed or you losing the team’s trust. So, realistically weigh those against the potential consequences of taking action.

Decide whether to wait
After this risk assessment, you may decide it’s best to hold off on voicing your opinion. Maybe, you haven’t finished thinking the problem through, or the whole discussion was a surprise to you, or you want to get a clearer sense of what the group thinks, or you think other people are going to disagree and you might want to gather your army first. It’s also a good idea to delay the conversation if you’re in a meeting or some other public space. Discussing the issue in private will make the powerful person feel less threatened.

Identify a shared goal
Before you share your thoughts, think about what the powerful person cares about. You’re more likely to be heard if you can connect your disagreement to a ‘higher purpose’. When you do speak up, don’t assume that the link will be clear. You’ll want to state it overtly, contextualizing your statements so that you’re seen not as a disagreeable underling but as a colleague who’s trying to advance a shared goal.

Ask permission to disagree
This step may sound overly deferential, but it’s a smart way to give the powerful person ‘psychological safety’ and control. You can say something like, “I have reasons to believe this won’t work and I’d like to lay out my reasoning. Would that be OK?” This gives the person a choice, ‘allowing them to verbally opt-in,’ and, assuming they say yes, will make you feel more confident about voicing your disagreement.

Stay calm
You might feel your heart racing or your face turning red, but do whatever you can to remain neutral in both your words and actions. When your body language communicates reluctance or anxiety, it undercuts the actual message. It sends a mixed signal, and your counterpart gets to choose what to read. Deep breaths can help, as can speaking more slowly and deliberately. You don’t want to talk in a whisper either. But simply slowing the pace and talking in an even tone, helps calm the other person down and does the same for you too. It also makes you seem confident, even if you aren’t.

Validate the original point
After you’ve gotten the permission, articulate the other person’s point of view. What is the idea, opinion, or proposal that you’re disagreeing with? Stating that clearly, possibly even better than your counterpart did, lays a strong foundation for the discussion. You don’t want to get into a fight about whether you get their point, you want your counterpart to know that you understand their point of view.

Don’t make judgments
When you move on to express your concerns, watch your language carefully. Avoid any judgment words such as short-sighted, foolish, or hasty that might upset or incite your counterpart. To avoid misinterpretation, share only facts. Stay neutral and focused. Be vivid about the problem. Try to make it an honest disagreement, a worthwhile advancement of thought.

Stay humble
Emphasize that you’re offering your opinion. It may be a well-informed, well-researched opinion, but it’s still an opinion. Thus, talk tentatively and slightly understate your confidence. Try adding a lot of ‘guiding phrases’ like “I’m thinking aloud here”, these will leave room for dialogue. Remind the person that this is your point of view, and then invite critique. Be genuinely open to hearing other opinions.

Acknowledge their authority
Ultimately, the person in power is probably going to make the final decision, so acknowledge that. You might say, “I know you’ll make the call here. This is up to you.” That will not only show that you know your place but also remind them that they have a choice. Though, don’t backtrack on your opinion or give false praise. Show respect to the person while maintaining your own self-respect.

The team at Actuate Business Consulting, a knowledge-based management consulting firm in India, believes that it’s important to voice disagreements in-order to attain the higher goals for a team/organisation, but one needs to keep in mind the principles to voice them in a way that is stating the facts and not being personal, while leaving no room for misinterpretation. Also, this helps the individual have a sense of accomplishment, while being perceived as someone who’s not shy to voice their opinion for the better of the organization.

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