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How to Disagree with Someone More Powerful than You

Avoiding conflict with your superiors might seem like it makes sense. But sometimes you need to respectfully disagree at work to achieve a better outcome for everybody.

But how can do you do that with someone more powerful than you?

JD Hancock on Flickr

Is it worth it?

Clearly you don’t want to rock the boat unnecessarily. Inevitably people will have different perspectives so there are usually several versions of “right”.

Assess the risks. Remember, we’re biased towards the negative so tend to overplay the worst-case scenario in our minds. Ask, what are the risks of not speaking up? Weigh those risks up against the potential consequences of taking action.

When should I speak up?

Get the timing right. It may be better to delay expressing your opinion until you have more ammo or information e.g.

  • “Let me think it through”

  • “I’d like to get a clearer sense of what the group thinks”

Put the feelers out to see who your allies might be and leverage their experience to add to your argument.

How should you speak up?

One-on-one is always better (and ideally in person), so try to avoid conflict during large, round table meetings if possible.

How you open the conversation is key e.g.:

This acknowledges their authority and shows you’re coming from a constructive place.

Anticipate their perspective and potential come backs/objections. Do this by appealing to your joint goals and demonstrate how your proposed strategy will help achieve these goals. Provide examples and as much context as you can.

Try and focus on facts rather than emotions, stay calm and speak slowly in a steady tone. If your back is up, theirs will be too.

Articulate their point of view, as well as your own, to show you’ve really thought things through – and potentially highlight how you can achieve the same outcome in a different way.

Don’t get personal – talk about the problems, not the people. You never know where their allegiances will lie and, at the end of the day, remember your opinion is just that – an opinion.

Helpful phrases might include:

  • “I’m thinking aloud here.”

  • “What do you think?”

  • “Tell me where I’m wrong with this”

  • “I know you’ll make the call here. This is up to you.”

These show you’re interested in making it a conversation, rather than a monologue, and that ultimately the decision is theirs.

Finally, bear in mind that if you can demonstrate you’re able to constructively influence your superiors and stakeholders, you’re much more likely to be considered for that promotion….

When was the last time you had to disagree with someone more powerful than you? What tactics did you use?

Email us your thoughts.

Photo by JD Hancock on Flickr.

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