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How to disagree with powerful people

Posted on 9/20/2022, 3:05:38 PM

Is there someone powerful in your life that you disagree with? Maybe your boss? It might seem challenging to disagree with someone in power. However, the truth is that you can differ without getting fired or having something terrible happen. "We have a natural bias to avoid situations that harm us," says Joseph Grennny, co-author of Crucial conversations and co-founder of Vital Smarts, a corporate training company. If you want to disagree with someone in power, here's how:

Calculate the risks

When you disagree, you should calculate the risks. Don't overplay the risks. Chances are that you won't get fired. You have to know how to disagree the right way. What will happen if you do not speak up? What are the consequences, then? That might be worse than speaking up. 

Right time, right place

It would help if you voiced your concerns at the right time and place. A public setting might not be the way to go. It's best to say your concerns in a private meeting. Also, you might want to research, think things through, or gather support before speaking.

Focus on a higher purpose

When voicing your concerns, it's always best to tie them to a shared goal. What does your boss care about? It might be increasing revenue. Whatever you say, make sure you are advancing these goals. Connect your disagreements to a higher purpose, and make sure to be overtly clear about what this higher purpose is. 

Ask Permission

Ask permission when you disagree. Sometimes it's helpful to set a process of disagreement beforehand. For example, ask your boss before starting the job what he prefers. When you disagree, say, "I don't think this will work out. Can I explain why?" If your boss says yes, you will feel more confident to disagree.

Stay calm and neutral

Stay calm and neutral. Try not to seem anxious or reluctant to voice your disagreements. Take deep breaths. Speak more slowly and deliberately. Talk in a slow pace and even tone. Don't raise your voice or use harsh words. Beware of words like "foolish", "short-sighted", etc.

Reiterate the original point

Reiterate the original point. When you disagree, state what the point that you disagree with is. That way, it will show that you know what you are talking about. That you understand. You don't want to fight about whether you get the point.

Focus on facts

Focus on the facts. Your opinion is just your opinion. Try to stay neutral and focused. Stay humble. You might want to say something like, "This is just my opinion, but ...." Remind the person that this is your point of view. Say something like "I'm thinking aloud here" and "Tell me if I'm wrong." Be open to criticism. Remember that generally, people are open to hearing your opinions.

Know your place

Always know your place. Respect your boss' position and authority. Be sure to maintain your self-respect. Say something like, "This is up to you." 

Janice is a software engineer at a Fortune 400 company. She sometimes disagrees with her boss. For example, her team wanted her to implement software a certain way, but she knew that could cause problems in the future. She was afraid to voice her concerns because she didn't want to be ostracized. However, after much consideration, she realized not voicing her concerns was worse than voicing them. 

She scheduled a private meeting with her boss. In the meeting, she said, "I am very excited to work on this project; however, I have a few concerns. Would you be open to hearing them?" After her boss said yes, she voiced her disagreements, backing them with her research, focusing on the facts, staying humble and neutral, and avoiding adjectives that sounded condensing or judgemental. She said, "I think if we implement it this way, this will have a significant impact on revenue because of X" --- tying her concerns to a higher purpose. 

She seemed calm while speaking, and at the end of the discussion, she said, "Again, this is my point of view. Thank you for listening." Her boss listened to what she had to say and told her he would think about the discussion and get back to her. 

Are you worried about voicing your concerns to someone more powerful than you? Don't be. Just be mindful of the way that you are speaking your concerns. Follow our advice and book a call with a mentor if you need help.

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