How to Disagree with Someone with More Authority than You

Your manager proposes a new project you think might not work. Your senior colleague sets a timeline for the project you think is unrealistic and unachievable. What do you do? How do you safely disagree with someone who has more power than you do? Do you resort to silence because maybe it’s not worth speaking up?  Or you do want speak up but don’t exactly know what you should be saying?

What are the Experts Saying?

It’s a natural for humans to shy away from disagreeing with a superior. “Our bodies specialize in survival, so we have a natural bias to avoid situations that might harm us,” says Joseph Grenny, the coauthor of Crucial Conversations and the cofounder of VitalSmarts. “The heart of the anxiety is that there will be negative implications,” adds Holly Weeks, the author of Failure to Communicate.

According to VitaSmarts Research the top five reasons employees list for biting their tongues:

  1. They don’t believe what they say will make a difference
  2. They don’t want to undermine the working relationship
  3. It’s not their place
  4. They fear retaliation
  5. They don’t know how to approach the conversation

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Be more realistic about the potential risks

Most people tend to overplay the risks involved in speaking up. “Our natural bias is to start by imagining all the things that will go horribly wrong,” Joseph Grenny says.

We know that failing to speak up doesn’t benefit the organisation. We know that aggression and coercion won’t positively affect our organisational culture.

But even though we know the tactics of silence and violence won’t help us get better results and build stronger relationships, we still choose these behaviours. He suggests you first consider “the risks of not speaking up” — perhaps the project might go off-track, or you’ll lose your team’s trust — then realistically weigh those against the potential outcomes of taking action.

Decide whether it’s worth the wait

After the careful risk assessment, you may decide it’s best to hold off on raising your opinion. Maybe you are still thinking about the problem and want to hear out the opinions of other group members before you make the move. If you identify more people disagree with the decision too, then you might want to gather your army first. The more people contribute experience and information to your thinking, the stronger and more valid the disagreement will be. It’s always wise to hold off the conversation if you are in a public place or a meeting and discuss the matter with the person in authority in private. This increases safety in the conversation and encourage a healthy dialogue.

Identify a mutual goal

Before you share your opinions and thoughts, think about what the person in authority cares about — it may be “the credibility of their team or getting a project done on time,” says Grenny. You can encourage a healthy conversation if you connect your concern to a “higher purpose.” And when you speak up, make sure you state it overtly, contextualise your statement so that it doesn’t seem as a disagreement but a colleague who is trying to advance a shared goal.

Ask for permission to disagree with them

This step may sound overly insinuated, but, according to Grenny, it’s a smart way to give the person in power a sense of “psychological safety” and control. You can start by saying something like, “I know we seem to be moving toward a first-quarter commitment here. I have reasons to think that won’t work. I’d like to lay out my reasoning. Would that be, OK?” This gives the person a choice, “allowing them to verbally opt in,” says Grenny. It will help you make your argument and voice your opinion more confidently.

Stay calm and neutral

You might feel your heart racing or your body feeling restless, but do whatever you can to remain neutral, both in your words and your actions. When you show hesitance and anxiety through your body language, it undercuts the message. It sends mixed signals to the person in power, and he/she might get to choose what to read. Taking deeper breathes and pausing between lines can help you speak more slowly and deliberately.  “When we feel panicky, we tend to talk louder and faster. You don’t want to be mousey or talk in a whisper, but simply slowing the pace and talking in an even tone helps calm the other person down and does the same for you,” says Grenny. It also makes you look confident, even if you aren’t.

Validate the original point

After you’ve gotten permission, understand the other person’s point of view. What is their idea, opinions, or proposal that you’re disagreeing with? Stating that with clarity, possibly in a better way than your counterpart did, lays a strong foundation for this conversation. The goal is for the person in power to understand and not get into a fight about whether you get their point.

Don’t make any judgments

When you move on to expressing your concerns, be more mindful of the language you use. Grenny says to avoid any “judgment words” such as “short-sighted,” “foolish,” or “hasty” that might set off your counterpart. Share only facts. For example, instead of saying, “I think that first-quarter deadline is naïve,” you can say, “We’ve tried four projects like this in the past, and we were able to do two in a similar time period, but those were special circumstances.” As much as you can, stay neutral and vivid about the problem to make it an honest disagreement, something worthwhile to be given a thought.

Always stay humble

Emphasise that you’re offering your opinion, not “gospel truth,” says Grenny. “It may be a well-informed, well-researched opinion, but it’s still an opinion, [so] talk tentatively and slightly understate your confidence.” Instead of saying something like, “If we set an end-of-quarter deadline, we’ll never make it,” say, “This is just my opinion, but I don’t see how we will make that deadline.” This will open space for dialogue. Having stated your position (as a position, not as a fact), “demonstrate equal curiosity about other views,” says Grenny. Remind the person that this is your opinion about the problem, and then lead to invite critique. Genuinely be open to listening to what their views are.

Acknowledge their authority and decision

Ultimately, the person in authority is going to make the final call, so acknowledge that. You might want to say, “I know you’ll make the call here. This is up to you.” That will not only show that you know your position but also remind them that they have choices to make, Grenny says. Keep in mind to show respect while maintaining own self-respect.

Dealing Effectively with Crucial Conversations

You have more than two options when you’re faced with a tough conversation. You don’t have to just shut up or shut down. Instead, you can recognise the potential for healthy, effective dialogue and knowingly choose to talk.

Whether you go through the training or read the book, you may not remember all the skills or acronyms when you need to. But life would change if we became better at noticing these moments in our lives called crucial conversations.

If you can notice these moments when they happen, then choose to be on your best behaviour during those times, you can succeed in any difficult conversation.

You’ve got a Crucial Conversation coming up and you don’t know what to do?

Don’t worry, we’ve got your back. The course is designed for people who want to improve their skills in handling tough conversations at work or home. It’s perfect for anyone who wants to learn how to have better conversations with the people they love most.

We’re here to help you get the results you need without hurting relationships or feelings along the way. This course will teach you how to handle any conversation like a pro so that everyone walks away feeling good about themselves and each other. And it’s easy!

Get in touch with our consultants to discuss how we can help you and your team succeed with our Crucial Conversations Course.

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