How to Disagree Agreeably

“A man’s got to know his limitations.”
-Det. Harry Callahan – a/k/a Dirty Harry

There are times in a man’s life when he cannot remain silent.  It may be on behalf of someone else, or you may have to stand up for yourself, but when the time comes, voicing your objection in the right way is critical.  Overreact and you can make a bad situation worse.  Fail to be clear about your objection and you’ll have spoken — but to no effect.  We’ve discussed previously how to handle criticism, but what do you do when you have to offer criticism?  The next time you have to confront someone, try the following:

Check Your Surroundings

That’s good advice

Keep cool
Unless absolutely necessary, don’t rush in with your metaphorical guns blazing.  Compose yourself and compose your thoughts.  If you need to make a list of points to cover, do so, but don’t try to memorize a speech.  If your differences have to do with the management or operation of an organization, frame your argument in terms of what is best for the organization — its people, its reputation, its profitability.

I know it will be difficult, but do your best to keep your emotions out of the discussion — especially if the matter in question affects you directly.

Remain professional
If you want to be heard, be willing to listen without interruption.  Consider that the one with whom you disagree may have his money, his ego or both wrapped up in the effort you’re criticizing.  If so, your disagreement is likely to be viewed as an attack or a betrayal.

Without getting sidetracked, emphasize the rational basis for your disagreement, and that this isn’t personal.  If it’s a matter of applying policies inconsistently, explain why this is bad for morale and employee retention.  If the practice or policy is immoral or unethical, explain why this is bad business and explain the potential long-term harm.  If it appears to be illegal, you can point this out — but ask good questions to be sure your understanding is correct.  If your differences are matters of style or semantics, remaining professional will enable you to discuss them without rancor.

Be humble, but not a doormat
I have a colleague who is a bona fide contrarian.  Over the nearly 30 years of our friendship he has routinely critiqued the less-than-thorough analyses of peers and superiors.  In the process he has made every organization he has worked for stronger.  In the many meetings I’ve attended with him, I’ve seen him offer his opinion thoughtfully, directly and without apology.  He nearly always adds, “I may be missing something, but…”

Another colleague of mine likes to say that most confrontations are 100% scientific and 100% political.  Being humble enough to admit you could be wrong is a good way to help the science prevail.

The right medicine at the right time
I once worked with a CEO who taught and modeled “We praise in public; we reprimand in private.”  Whether you’re a leader or a subordinate, arranging to speak in private is sound management.  No matter your place in the hierarchy, you’ll be showing respect by not putting your opposite number on the spot and you’re more likely to be heard when the one receiving your critique doesn’t have to be concerned about losing face.

A cardinal axiom of mine is never to reprimand a leader in front of his team.  If you want leaders to lead successfully, discuss your differences out of earshot of their followers.  Similarly, my wife and I made it our policy never to fight in front of our sons.  Sure, we disagreed from time to time, but the serious stuff was done behind closed doors.  This way, neither of us undermined the other’s authority.

Be willing to take the hit if necessary
Leadership expert John Maxwell wrote that a follower should support the vision of his leader.  If he can’t do this, he should seek to change what he can about himself to enable him to subscribe to the leader’s vision, or he should find another leader.  Some differences simply can’t be reconciled.  If that’s the case, recognize it, speak your peace according the guidance above and discreetly begin the search for a new leader.

The world is small and getting smaller, so take the high road and resist the urge to settle scores on your way out.  You’ll be in much better shape as a man and as a leader.

So how about you?  What lessons have you learned from disagreeing agreeably?  Add your comments below

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic. Bring your best manners, please.

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