How to Disagree with Colleagues Without Making Enemies

Updated Dec 21, 20225 min
How to Disagree with Colleagues Without Making Enemies

How to Disagree with Colleagues Without Making Enemies

Caroline BantonUpdated Dec 21, 20225 min
How to Disagree with Colleagues Without Making Enemies

You will always find people and policies that you disagree with, so if you are to avoid appearing to be a real pain, it’s wise to only take on those you really have to. “Pick your battles,” as the old adage says.

How do you know when to disagree? Well, it depends on your motivations. If it’s to further the good of the organization or to suggest a better way of doing things, then it’s probably a good idea to disagree. However, it might not be such a good idea if you are voicing your political views, engaging in office politics, or your ego is driving you.

This article looks at some of the motivations for disagreeing with colleagues and whether they are noble ones. We also turn to Dale Carnegie’s bestseller, “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” for advice on how to disagree with colleagues without making them enemies.

Conflict in The Work Environment 

Office politics, personal perspectives, and personal relationships are all causes of disagreements among colleagues that can lead to a toxic workplace. In a toxic environment, people's motivations become skewed because there is no coherence or shared goals. People become insecure and defensive. 

However, in a healthy work environment, conflicts are managed before they spiral out of control. Conflicts can be addressed by the individuals involved, or by a third party, such as human resources or a professional career coach who intervene and mediate a complex situation.

Where individuals are concerned, a disagreement is often an attempt to either change someone’s behavior or a person's perspective on something. Read on to find effective strategies for doing both. 

For more on conflict resolution, read "Conflict Resolution Skills in the Workplace."

Changing Someone’s Behavior

Let’s say you have a work colleague who does something that you disagree with. They may talk too loud, disrupt your work, constantly interrupt you, or they might habitually miss deadlines. What's the best way to approach the person about their behavior to change it?

First, complaining or criticizing the person is the last thing you should do, although it might be the first thing you might want to do. In his famous book, Carnegie references the psychologist B.F. Skinner who proved that someone rewarded for good behavior will learn much faster and retain what they learn far more effectively than someone who is punished for bad behavior. Bottom line: criticism feels like a punishment because it damages our ego causing us to become emotional and defensive.

A better way to approach the problem is to understand the person you have the dispute with and find what motivates them. You can then use that motivation to make the person want to change. 

Most people want to feel important in the workplace. So, for the person who talks too loud, you could say,

“Keith, look, that project deadline today we've been working on is due today at 5 pm. If you can help me focus and make sure everything’s quiet around here for the day with no interruptions, boy that would really help it along.”

There is no criticism there; in fact, Keith might just step up and stop anyone from interrupting you.

For the person who habitually misses deadlines, you could say.

“Jane, the coding we’re working on for the AB project is integral to its success. The earlier you can get your contribution to John, the more likely we are to get it approved and ready to pass on to marketing.”

Changing the Perspective of Others

You might want to change the perspective of colleagues if you disagree with a point of view. Perhaps there is a strategic decision that you disagree with, and you are sure that your opinion is the right one. You feel that not doing it your way will be bad for business. How should you approach this situation if the other person clearly thinks you are wrong?

To influence others, you first must understand what the other person is thinking and why. In this case, too, you also have to know what motivates them and use that to convince them that your way is the best way to get what it is they want.

Before you speak, ask yourself, “How can I make this person want to change? How can I frame my argument in terms of my colleague’s wants?”

What Not to Do

What will not work is arguing. By arguing, you are attempting to prove others’ wrong, and nobody likes a know-it-all. At best, arguing with someone will only cause them to dig in deeper and double down on their convictions. At worst, it will be perceived as a personal attack.

A Strategy for Tackling Disagreements

Here are some tips on finding an agreement where there is disagreement.

1.   Welcome the disagreement. Be open to what the other side is saying. They may make a point that you have not considered, and that might prevent you from making a mistake.

2.   Don’t become defensive or angry. Keep calm. 

3.   Never call the other person “wrong.” That is saying that you are smarter than they are. Respect their opinion. You can always agree to disagree.

4.   Find common ground and areas of agreement

5.   Find areas where you were wrong, or had a misunderstanding, and apologize. 

6.   Commit to thinking over the opposing point of view and study it carefully before a follow-up meeting. 

7. Don’t take any action until you have re-considered the problem. Could the opposing arguments have merit?

How to Have a Difficult Conversation

If you still are in disagreement and want to change the perspectives of your team or someone on it. There are phrases and body language that you can use to aid conflict resolution and promote teamwork in the future.

1. Be Positive

First, spend five minutes or so talking about positive things. If possible, emphasize the importance of the opposing party’s opinions and contributions. Then, get to the matter at hand.

Rather than stating that the opposing view or person is wrong, try saying

“My thoughts are different, but I could be wrong. If I am wrong, I'd like to understand why. Let's list out what we know to be the facts.”  

This will disarm the other person and encourage them to be more open and reasonable mainly because you are not threatening the other person’s ego.

Don’t shake your head and show signs of frustration. Instead, ask questions and become inquisitive. For example, instead of saying,

“No, you’re wrong.”


“Why do you see it that way?”

Instead of saying,

“No, that’s the wrong way to tackle it.”

Say, “Why do you think that’s the best option to pursue?”

2. Start from “Yes”

As soon as you can, get the opposing party to say “yes.” Find areas of agreement, accentuate them, and have everyone on the same page striving for the same goal. That will increase the likelihood that you can stay in agreement.

Once a person says or thinks, “no.” It will be an uphill battle to get them to change their opinion. Their pride rests on them being consistent with that “no;” otherwise, they must admit to a mistake.

Lawyers often use a strategy where they ask witnesses a series of questions to which they know the answer will be yes. Then, while their minds are in yes mode, they lead them to a conclusion they agree with that they might have denied a few minutes earlier.

Here is an example of a question to get to initial agreement.

“The goal of this meeting is to decide on the best way to get customer input to minimize frustration with the product and get it to market by the deadline, correct?”

3. Let the Opposers Do Most of the Talking

Most people talk too much when they try to get others to agree with their perspective. Instead, let the opposers do most of the talking and express their opinions. This will get them in a better frame of mind because they feel listened to.

4. Let the Other Person Come Up with the Solution

None of us want to be told what to do. We like to think independently. Make some suggestions, and let the other person think out the conclusion. Guide them to a conclusion with hints, and step back while they come up with your idea themselves. Don’t be concerned with taking the credit. Let someone else take the spotlight.

The Upside of Disagreements

As long as conflicts are embraced for the right reasons, not driven by ego, and approached in a non-threatening way, healthy disagreement can be constructive in several ways.

·     More ideas and viewpoints are shared, which can lead to innovation and advancements.

·     You might find a solution to a chronic problem that has affected the majority.

·     Constructive conflict nurtures a healthy culture where people can feel safe and respected when expressing their concerns.

Follow the advice in this article, and disagreements should no longer seem something to dread. Sometimes, finding a third party, such as human resources, or employing an executive coach to work as a mediator can be the best path to managing conflict in the workplace.

Caroline Banton
Expert on career acceleration and business topics with vast experience writing for globally-recognized publications

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