How to Disagree

Last week I listened to a BBC Radio 4 series, How to disagree – a beginner’s guide to having better arguments.  What a fascinating topic!  The key point was that disagreement can be a good thing, but we need to do it better.  If there is no disagreement, there is no change or progress – we need new ideas and perspectives to grow as people and as a society.  Groupthink (where we all agree) has proven downsides.  But sometimes, instead of leading to positive change, disagreement can lead to negative conflict.

As a Coach, one of the issues my clients sometimes raise is how to disagree with people more senior than them.  They often know they should speak up, but they don’t do it.  This article is about why we find disagreement difficult at work and how we can change our thinking and practice to disagree better.

What stops us speaking up and disagreeing?  

There are barriers within ourselves, in others and in ways of working.

  • We have deep-seated needs to feel that we matter, we are respected and we are liked. Speaking up to disagree threatens these needs – if we speak up, we might be ignored, feel stupid or disliked.  It is safer to stay silent.  But staying silent means our team loses our insights and contribution – we suppress critical comments that could help the group to perform better than the individuals within it.
  • There may not be opportunities to articulate our thoughts due to the other personalities in the room. People with a more introverted disposition (who like to think first, before speaking), may not get the chance to articulate their thoughts before the others move on.  The less powerful people in the room may feel they don’t have “permission” to speak.
  • The way a meeting is run can prevent people from speaking up. Being under time pressure can stop people raising their point of view, if they know the others are keen to get out of the room.  Always following a rigid procedure, such as asking people in turn for their comments, can stop people speaking up when something important occurs to them out of turn.

Overcoming the barriers to speaking up is one step forward to better disagreement.  We also need to get better at listening.  As the economist J. K. Galbraith said: “in the choice between changing one’s mind and proving there’s no need to, most people get busy on the proof”.  We tend not to fully listen and seek to understand the other person’s point of view.  Yet doing so leads us to gain perspective and insight and might even lead to us learning and changing our minds.

What stops us listening well?

  • Once we speak up, we tend to cling to our ideas, as we have invested time and effort in working them out and expressing them.
  • Instead of listening carefully to the other people’s views and discussing them objectively, we concentrate on producing more arguments to convince them of our own position, even if some of these arguments are spurious and we become entrenched.
  • We tend to assume that other people have malign motives or “hidden agendas” and that they are wrong.


Becoming more skilled in disagreeing well is largely about managing your own thoughts and feelings, so that you are willing to speak up and listen constructively.

  • Remember that no individual has all the truth and insights on their own – pooled knowledge should lead to a better result. It’s a missed opportunity if you don’t share yours or listen to theirs.
  • Be prepared to move out of your comfort zone when you have something to say.
  • Presume that the people you are disagreeing with are similar to you, rather than seeing them as “other”. Take an empathetic perspective and think about why they think what they think.
  • Review how meetings are organised and run – are changes needed to enable people to speak up and be listened to?
  • Keep your emotions on a level – spot potential conflict early and take the heat and pace out by how you respond. Avoid personal attacks – focus on the issue, not the person.
  • Take their perspective, see how you can adapt your position to meet their needs, explore options that will satisfy both sides, work towards a win-win, look for common ground.
  • Be willing to move on if you have lost an argument and rather than feeling undermined, be happy that you have contributed to the debate and the solution.

Disagreement can lead to better solutions.

The key to disagreeing well is to be prepared to defend your ideas AND be willing to change your mind.

For tips on reducing conflict, see People Management.