Fostering Constructive Disagreement: How To Properly Present An Opposing View

“Conformity is a type of social influence involving a change in belief or behavior in order to fit in with a group.

This change is in response to real or imagined (involving the pressure of social norms / expectations) group pressure.”

When I read the above words in a social psychology article by Saul McLeod, I was reminded of the fact that for many, owning a different perspective often means going against the flow or shunning the status quo.  The prospect of exposing one’s self in such a manner is both daunting and quite frankly unsettling. Appearing to be against the beliefs of senior leadership can cause us to refrain from expressing our own perspectives even though we may see things that need to be brought out in the open.  But today, in order to survive and thrive, you must be able to demonstrate why you’re essential to the business, rather than just relevant.

We also know that the most effective companies today encourage teams to raise issues, debate them, and resolve them. However, you may be in a situation where this reality has not yet been adopted. Read on.

The Game Has Definitely Changed . . .

In today’s rapidly changing work climate where employees are, with increasing frequency, being called upon to think like an entrepreneur (otherwise known as being intrapreneurial), independent thinking is a pre-requisite for survival.

Due to the pressure of getting results, many bosses, generally speaking, are not seeking out consensus.

In most instances, they do not have the time or the inclination to take an employee by the hand and walk them through their needs and the needs of the company.  They expect an employee to take the initiative to both understand their role in the organization, and what is required of them in terms of delivering value.

This has created a catch 22.  By that, I mean that to be successful, you will have to voice your honest opinion. But the reality is that in doing so, your perspective may not align with the thinking of your boss or leadership.  How do you know which is better – to say nothing for fear of not fitting in, or voicing your opposing perspectives and set yourself to be seen as a naysayer?

Old Habits (And Mindsets) Are Hard To Break

Despite the new independence reality in the business world, taking a stand that bucks the trend is still viewed with a degree of trepidation – a kind of win the battle but lose the war mentality in which being right is second to being viewed as a team player.

The real question is simply this . . . in disagreeing with someone, does it mean that you have to be disagreeable?

In this month’s eNewsletter, I will provide you with several key tips for fostering constructive disagreement.

What’s most important is to first understand the personality of your audience and to determine how, in the past, they have acted when someone has disagreed with them. In this regard, it is important that you don’t paint everyone with the same brush.  Your choice of framing your ideas will depend on the personality of your executives, customers and business partners.

1. Start From A Position of Common Ground

There is a well-known proverb that reiterates that sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees.

When there is disagreement, the tendency is to focus on the points of contention as opposed to the points of commonality.  As a result, we often find ourselves being either defensive of our point of view or, we go on the offensive in trying to convince the other party that ours is the way to go. The key is to not to get lost in the trees.

common ground2 Always seek to clarify the ultimate goal that everyone is trying to achieve.  Once you have established a unified vision, then articulate your message to integrate different ideas and approaches, remembering to reinforce how it will ultimately lead to everyone moving in the same direction towards a common outcome.

2. Embrace constructive disagreement

It is not a game; there are no winners or losers. If you have ever been a member of a debate team, the whole purpose is to take a position and then successfully argue it.  The team that presents their position most effectively is deemed to be the winner.

In business, winning a debate is not necessarily going to result in the best or optimum outcome. It is instead through the process of “constructive disagreement”, in which all ideas are respectfully heard, openly discussed, and ultimately considered in the context of a collective goal, that true success will be attained.

open-mindMarkTwain Just because your idea per se was not accepted this time around, does not mean that you are the loser.  The same goes for when your idea is the one that is adopted does not make you the winner. It is through your participation in the process of debate itself that the best result is going to be achieved relative to the end goal.

3. Do Not Make It Personal

I have always believed that the way you say something is as important as what you are actually saying. When conflict is task based, it’s considered productive.

When conflict is relationship focused, it becomes destructive. In this regard, when someone tells you that you should not take it personally – it’s just business. This means that disagreeing with someone should be centered squarely on his or her objectives.

If a conversation is turning into a heated debate, make sure that you keep focused on the topic and the goals, as well as the desired end results.

Big Picture3 Keep in mind that facial expression and body language is also an important part of encouraging open communication.  Even if someone offers input that seems to be totally out of left field, don’t roll your eyes or make overt gestures that can be seen as being dismissive.

4. Reiterate a collective purpose

Even though you should passionately and with complete integrity present your point of view in a professional manner, there is a time that all dissenting opinions and visions must be compressed into a shared purpose.


This means that whether the adopted idea is yours or someone else’s, it ultimately must become everyone’s idea.

From this standpoint, and unless you are being asked to go against your personal values or compromise your integrity in some way, get behind the plan.  You are now an important part of the collective whole, with an equally important role to play in achieving a mutual goal.

While there will be times of disagreement and strong debate, when you are part of a winning team, it is truly an “all for one, and one for all” mindset, that will lead to finding the right solutions towards achieving the right outcomes.

Other tips

  • Don’t wait until the end to express your concerns. Waiting to the end as a naysayer will probably cause animosity and tension by those who are initiating a desired proposal or action plan.
  • Take ownership for your feelings. Don’t point fingers.  Use “I” statements.  Here’s how I see the situation…rather than “You’re wrong…You’re making a mistake”.  You never want to be seen as confrontational as it reduces the chances of your point of view being considered.
  • Wipe the words “but or “however” from your dictionary. When you are offering another perspective, using these words minimizes the value of the other person’s ideas, which can be perceived as condescending or negating their perspectives.
  • Ask for clarification before you express your thoughts, especially in front of an executive who does not like to be challenged.  For example, pose questions such as “I’m curious to know your thoughts?”, “What’s your perspective on…?” or “I would be interested in understanding how you arrived at this…”
  • When giving your opinion, there may be times when you may have to tread lightly, especially in front of an executive who likes to control.  Consider saying “I’ve got some data and wonder if you would be interested in another perspective or, These numbers show that . . .Therefore, I believe that in order to accomplish your goals . . .”
  • Know if you should take the discussion off line (face to face in a private location) or speak up publicly. In this way, you may have a better chance of being heard if you trust your gut and assess the situation.  Don’t crucify yourself because you disagreed with an executive in public and couldn’t refrain from spouting off that the idea was unreasonable.
  • Become a master listener. Most people listen with the intention of planning their answer or debate. Focus on what is being said and link your reply to finding something in common.  For example:  “I agree with the urgency and believe that in terms of saving time, we might consider….”

Finally . . . Remember The Three Rules

My three favorite tactics for getting people on board is to follow the three rules: reflect, mirror and paraphrase.

Reflecting: Reflecting is simply paraphrasing and restating both the feelings and the words of the other person. It does not involve asking questions or bringing up a new topic. The value is that it shows your audience that you are focused on listening. This helps them to hear their own thoughts or ideas.

Mirroring:  Mirroring is a simple form of reflecting and involves repeating almost exactly what the individual says. Keep it short and simple – I suggest that you repeat key words or the last few words spoken. This shows you are genuinely trying to understand the person and encourages them to continue the dialogue.  Be careful about over-mirroring, as this can appear calculated or annoying.

Paraphrasing:  This involves using other words to repeat what the person has said. Paraphrasing shows not only that you are listening, but also that you are attempting to understand what they are saying. It also helps you to learn if you have grasped the other person’s ideas.

Quoting the lyrics to “The Gambler” song by KENNY ROGERS, “ You’ve got to know when to hold ’em. Know when to fold ’em. Know when to walk away.” There will be times when you have no choice but to give in.  The good news is that you can purposefully lose a battle to win the next one.



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