How to disagree in a way that benefits your business

By Ally Yates

Working through disagreements within your team is an important part of developing your business. Why? Because it typically leads to greater understanding and better quality solutions. The best relationships are built on the ability to manage tensions as much as the desire to support one another.

When teams and groups are working effectively they use Disagreeing and Supporting verbal behaviours in equal amounts. Here, Disagreeing is defined as “Making a clear statement of disagreement with someone else’s statement, idea or approach, or raising objections.”

Supporting, on the other hand is “a clear statement of agreement or support for a person or their statement, opinion, idea or approach.”

Some people are unhelpfully vocal, labelling their disagreements which leads to further dissent. Labelled Disagreeing might sound like: ‘I disagree with that because…’ and then the speaker goes on to give the reasons. This can be interpreted as a threat or an attack leaving people stunned into silence, retreating or reacting immediately. There’s a dearth of listening and an absence of exploring the various arguments.

Others show their disagreement by ‘leaking’ emotionally; displaying clear, non-verbal indications of discomfort. This can be interpreted as devious or even downright rude.

Fortunately, there are more constructive ways to disagree, which will help your team work through disagreements and find better solutions. These are: Testing Understanding, Stating reasons before disagreeing, Giving Feelings, and Building.

  • Testing Understanding seeks to test an assumption or check understanding. For example, John says: ‘Nick has been a consistently high performer across all aspects of his work.’ Rather than directly disagree, Mary might say: ‘Does that include safety?’. Her questioning invites those present to reflect and consider the answer, while also increasing clarity, ensuring everyone is on the same page.
  • Sharing your reasons for disagreeing before declaring your position gives people missing information and a context. This can be used as a basis for exploration and deeper understanding. For example, a colleague suggests that Alexander Bell is in the greatest inventor. Rather than label your disagreement you might say: ‘You can judge greatness in a number of ways, for example: patents filed, number of products innovated or impact on the world. I don’t think Bell matches up on all those counts, compared with Thomas Edison or Benjamin Franklin.’ This allows others to understand the basis for your position and a more fruitful discussion can follow.
  • ‘Giving Feelings’ is an expression of how you feel about what’s happening in any given interaction. For example, ‘I’m feeling uncomfortable that we’re only focusing on cost cutting’ (versus ‘I disagree with your idea’.)
  • Building, defined as: ‘Extending or developing a proposal made by another person’, requires us to listen to what’s being said and let go of our own sense of ‘rightness’.

You can use Building to shape the suggestion in a slightly different direction:

Mark:  Can we focus the away-day on increasing productivity?

Dawn:  We could have representatives of each function form break-out groups as a way of addressing that in a practical way. It would also allow us to broaden the theme.

Of the four alternatives, Building is the most skilful and the one likely to have the most positive impact in a small business. Instead of being fearful of disagreement, build variety into your responses and those of your team, and use the four behaviours above to increase your behavioural repertoire. 


Ally Yates is author of ‘Utter Confidence: How what you say and do influences your effectiveness in business’ and an expert on behaviour analysis.