Skill 3:  Disagree Smoothly

One of the most valuable assets in a meeting is the ability to respectfully share contrasting views. This is disagreeing smoothly. It is valuable because polite disagreement helps uncover blind spots, strengthen ideas, and leads to better business solutions.

When you’re feeling unsure, it’s normal to remain silent or avoid disagreement when you speak up. It’s much easier to wait for someone else to object or disagree.

However, always avoiding disagreement can weaken the team’s decisions and lead to missed opportunities. Key viewpoints often get overlooked when people don’t feel comfortable disagreeing. Furthermore, important details and potential risks are missed without opposing opinions.

The techniques below allow you to disagree smoothly and politely, which will not only improve company outcomes, but personal work relationships.

As you develop your No-Hesitation Mindset, it is crucial to combine the techniques of Disagree Smoothly and Skill 2: Jump in & Tell Me More to enhance your influence and active participation in meetings. 

What is Disagreeing Smoothly?

Disagreeing smoothly is using polite feedback to deliver gentle critique. Disagreeing is simply the expression of your professional opinion. In fact, providing negative or disagreeing feedback is highly valuable in a business setting. The key is to balance it with positive feedback. 

Direct expression of disagreement or opinion:

“This plan carries too many risks.”
“I do not see the value in this proposal.”

Indirect expression of disagreement or opinion:

“I can see the effort you have put into this plan. Could you please describe the risks involved?”
“Thank you for presenting today. Before we move on, could you tell me  about the comparative advantage of your proposal?”

In the indirect examples, you first offer positive remarks, then subtly voice your concerns using a question. This is a diplomatic way to disagree without coming across as confrontational. We call it disagreeing smoothly. 

A No-Hesitation Mindset and the Jump In & Tell Me More skill is necessary for disagreeing smoothly! 

Disagree Smoothly is skill number three because it relies on the abilities to speak up without hesitation, and jump in with relevant comments. If you haven’t reviewed those, check out Chapter 4: Skill 1: Speak Up Without Hesitation and Chapter 5: Skill 2: Jump In & Tell Me More

How to Disagree Smoothly and Respectfully at Work

To disagree smoothly at work, we recommend the opinion sandwich. It is also called the compliment sandwich in some cultures. The steps are as follows:

  1. Start with a positive remark
  2. Express your opinion or point of disagreement
  3. End with another positive comment

This approach is effective because it allows you to voice your perspective without seeming overly critical. The key is to maintain a balance between positive and negative feedback.

For example, let’s say you are listening to a proposal on cloud security. Here are some simple notes using the VCR framework:

  • Good progress (Value)
  • Costs clear?? (Cost)
  • Matches our needs (Value)

You could then respond by saying, “It looks like you have made good progress on the cloud security project. Can you go into more detail regarding the projected  costs?” 

This allows you to raise concerns about the costs while also acknowledging the positive progress. 

Finally, I could finish by saying, “I think this project matches our needs very well. Thank you.” This comment is appropriate directly after you ask the question, or after you receive an answer.

A few additional tips:

  • Come prepared to the meeting with 2-3 questions about the agenda topics
  • Take notes during the discussion. You can reference these when providing your input
  • If the conversation pace is too rapid to catch details, politely request a brief summary

The goal is to appear poised and ready to contribute. Utilize the Opinion Sandwich technique to disagree diplomatically and make your voice heard. TED and the VCR framework can support you. This skill will enhance your confidence, influence, and impact in business meetings. Many native and non-native speakers apply this skill to enhance their communication in English meetings.

Team Approaches to Disagreeing Smoothly

To make more disagreement in meetings a team goal, we recommend assigning someone to be the  devil’s advocate in each meeting. A “devil’s advocate” is someone whose role is to disagree often. It should not be the same person in every meeting. Rotate the role so that no one is stuck with it, and everyone has a chance to practice.

Adopting practices like the devil’s advocate prevents premature agreement. It allows space for respectful disagreement before finalizing decisions, whether in a meeting or in a one-to-one conversation. This is also a great way to help everyone become more confident at disagreeing in meetings!

The Benefits of Disagreeing Smoothly

Disagreeing at work is good for your company

While disagreements between employees may seem harmful, a workplace where people can voice different opinions is actually beneficial for companies. This is because disagreement builds strong professional relationships through trust. This is especially in direct communication cultures, which tend to value progress over harmony. As a result, the world’s highest performing companies expect both leaders and subordinates to disagree and express their opinions.

When respectful, disagreement leads to creative ideas, identifies issues, and results in better solutions.Team efforts are improved through feedback. For all of these reasons, disagreement leads to stronger team performance, and therefore better company performance. 

Co-workers who disagree and discuss many viewpoints are more likely to have innovative ideas. When different opinions meet, it often sparks new ideas that no one considered previously. This promotes continuous learning.

Beyond innovation, healthy disagreement is a signal that employees care. Especially in direct communication cultures, employees who speak up usually care deeply about the company’s success. Few colleagues speaking up is a red flag for team leaders or HR employees: it may be that employees are disengaged or lacking psychological safety.

What happens if no one ever disagrees?

In workplace cultures where everyone always agrees with the majority, a “groupthink” mindset can develop. Groupthink is when people agree only to prevent disagreement, without figuring out if the idea is truly good or bad. This means groupthink decisions are not deeply examined.

Because groupthink decisions are not deeply examined, there is an increased risk of flaws or missed opportunities. 

Active discussion with differing perspectives ensures all angles receive thorough examination before decisions. This can feel difficult for indirect communicators, but is essential in direct communication cultures.

Disagreeing at work is good for your career

While disagreeing with colleagues may feel uncomfortable, respectfully voicing different opinions can benefit your career growth.

By disagreeing and explaining your opinion, you show confidence, critical thinking, and courage. This shows leadership potential to managers. With practice, it will also increase your confidence in meetings.

Engaging in constructive disagreement also shows that you care about your work. Managers appreciate employees who carefully analyze issues rather than passively accepting others’ viewpoints. Asking questions and suggesting new perspectives shows motivation, and shows that you care about finding the best solution.

Additionally, disagreeing with colleagues from different backgrounds exposes you to diverse ideas and ways of thinking. This improves your problem-solving skills over time as you think about creative new angles. 

By mastering the skill of disagreeing smoothly, you show yourself to be a strong team player who is honest yet respectful. Managers seek these qualities for roles requiring strength, persuasion, and innovation. In other words, respectful disagreement showcases your leadership potential.

Let me share a personal anecdote about my first experience providing public feedback:

There were about 100 people, so I was quite nervous. I had to evaluate three speeches, and had to speak for 2-minutes each. The tricky part was, I only had 30 seconds to prepare.

However, the Opinion Sandwich technique came to my rescue. This simple approach involves bookending your feedback with positive comments, while inserting your opinion or point of disagreement in the middle.

Not only did this format help me deliver my feedback smoothly, but after the event, many people requested that I evaluate their speeches as well! This technique is especially valuable for non-native speakers as it is simple to apply even with very little preparation.

Warren Arbuckle, Founder

Should I disagree all the time?

Many people wonder whether they should try to disagree more, just for the point of disagreeing. We don’t advise this. Here’s why:

Imagine a car. It has two main controls: a brake pedal and a gas pedal. If you only use the brake pedal, you won’t go anywhere. If you only use the gas pedal, you’ll create an accident. As a result, driving a car well is about balance. 

The same is true of disagreeing. It’s about balance. 

If you are always pushing the ‘disagreement brake pedal’, you will never express your true opinion. This hurts your work quality, and hurts your team’s work quality. 

But if you are always using the ‘disagreement gas pedal’—if you are disagreeing blindly, or without thinking carefully—work can’t get done! This also hurts your team’s work quality, and it also hurts your credibility. 

The key is using logic, data, and a polite tone to explain your viewpoint respectfully after fully considering others’ rationale. Be willing to compromise! It demonstrates flexibility and professionalism.

When is disagreeing at work a bad choice?

While respectfully voicing differing opinions can be valuable, there are certain situations where disagreeing at work may be an unwise choice that could negatively impact your career. 

  1. Don’t disagree because of a power struggle or personal conflict. Disagreement can become unproductive or harmful if the reason is a power struggle, a personal conflict, or if it is expressed disrespectfully. Clear guidelines about disagreeing constructively are key for receiving the benefits of disagreement.
  1. Don’t disagree to get attention. If you are disagreeing just to disagree or to draw attention to yourself, it is better to stay silent. This can come across as disruptive or rude. 
  1. Don’t disagree when you lack context or details. It is also better to stay silent when you lack full context or details about the situation. Expressing an opinion without being well-informed makes you appear reckless or unprofessional. Take time to understand the topic and the reasons for colleagues’ suggestions before disagreeing.
  1. Don’t disagree before you hear the full explanation. Disagreeing before a plan or proposal has been fully explained can make you seem inflexible and unwilling to hear new ideas. It’s okay to ask questions, but keep an open mind until you hear the full proposal.
  1. Don’t disagree when bigger priorities are more important. In English, there is a saying: “Pick your battles.” This means that some arguments or disagreements are not worth the trouble. There may be times where wider priorities are more important over any individual disagreement you may have. It’s better to disagree when the outcome is very important. Not every difference of opinion needs to become an argument. Choose your disagreements wisely.

Overall, disagreements should be motivated by genuine concerns about the topic. 

Finally, you should avoid disagreeing in an aggressive, confrontational manner. It’s also important to avoid disagreeing in a personal manner. This means that when you disagree, your disagreement should question the proposal, not the person presenting the proposal. Such behavior can permanently damage workplace relationships. Disagree firmly but respectfully.

Disagreeing smoothly in an indirect communication culture

We recommend using the opinion sandwich technique in both direct and indirect communication cultures. However, here are a few tips to make disagreement in indirect communication cultures even more comfortable and effective.

In workplace cultures that primarily use indirect communication styles, openly disagreeing can sometimes be viewed as impolite or confrontational. 

However, respectfully expressing differing views remains important for driving innovation and solutions. Here are some tips for disagreeing effectively in an indirect communication environment:

Build Rapport First 

Before disagreeing, take time to establish a warm rapport and positive relationship with the people you may need to disagree with. If at all possible, do this in the weeks and days leading up to an important meeting. Trust and goodwill make your disagreements less aggressive.

Provide Context 

Carefully lay out the context, evidence and reasoning behind your disagreement so it doesn’t appear baseless or unnecessary.  In addition to the Opinion Sandwich, we also recommend using the Get to the Point Framework.

Stay Patient

In indirect cultures, reactions and decisions often take more time. Don’t be discouraged if your viewpoint isn’t adopted immediately. Continuing to respectfully raise your opinion over time could gradually impact perspectives.

Offer Feedback One-on-One, Outside of Meetings

Feedback is always easier to receive in a private setting. If you can, do your best to offer the feedback in person-to-person, one-on-one. 

It’s even more effective if you can offer this feedback far ahead of any meeting, as decisions are usually made before the meeting in indirect cultures, rather than at the meeting.

The goal is to voice disagreement while still maintaining an amiable, cooperative tone aligned with cultural norms around disagreement. With wisdom and care, dissenting views can be shared even in highly indirect environments.

I find it really  helps when I prepare others’ expectations by softening the impact of my opinion or disagreement.

Often I will set up with a statement like this: “Perhaps I am missing something. Could you tell me more about how we will manage the risks?

This shows others that you are trying to understand, seeking to improve the situation. This soft-approach allows me to disagree indirectly by asking for more information.

Warren Arbuckle, Founder

What are the unwritten communication rules behind disagreeing smoothly?

Communicating in Indirect Environments

When disagreeing in an indirect communication culture, here are the rules you must keep in mind. To learn more about each rule, read Chapter 3: The Unwritten Rules of Communication.

Indirect Rule 2: When speaking, be considerate by taking into account the situation of each individual and the group as a whole.

When speaking, be considerate of the situation and perspectives of each individual as well as the group. Use general, contextual language rather than being overly explicit or obvious, which could be seen as inconsiderate or damaging to group harmony. The goal is to leave room for different interpretations to avoid direct disagreement.

Indirect Rule 7: It is common to defer to the opinions of those with authority and/or seniority, especially in public.

In public, especially in the presence of company outsiders, defer to the opinions of those with authority or seniority. Even if you disagree, present a united, harmonious front to protect group harmony, avoid embarrassment, and show respect for the organizational hierarchy. Following this rule demonstrates you are a team player willing to preserve the reputation of the team.

Indirect Rule 8: When disagreeing, do so in a non-confrontational manner. 

Disagreement should be handled delicately. If you must disagree, try to do so privately in a one-on-one, non-confrontational way. Use softening language like “slightly,” “a bit,” “I’m not sure,” “maybe,” and polite phrases like “please” and “I’m sorry.” You can make it even softer by using the opinion sandwich.

Disagreeing publicly risks harming relationships with colleagues, your boss, and your company’s reputation. It may cause you to be seen as an outsider who recklessly damages relationships. Consider how to disagree while making the other person feel as secure as possible.

Indirect Rule 9: Feedback can be seen as criticism. 

Because feedback can be seen as criticism, it’s important to give feedback in a one-on-one setting, not in front of the whole group. Use the opinion sandwich to soften the feedback. Phrase negative feedback as an open-ended question rather than a judgment, such as “Could you tell me how this data differs from previous years?” instead of stating the data looks wrong.

Additionally, singling someone out for feedback risks making others feel either relieved they weren’t targeted (in the case of negative feedback), or alternatively ignored (in the case of positive feedback). 

People managers need to be particularly cautious about how they provide feedback to preserve group harmony.

Communicating in Direct Environments

When disagreeing in a direct communication culture, here are the rules you must keep in mind. To learn more about each rule, read Chapter 3: The Unwritten Rules of Communication.

Direct Rule 2: When speaking, be considerate by communicating logically, clearly, and to the point.

When speaking, be considerate by communicating logically, clearly and to the point. State your main point upfront, provide supporting reasons or evaluate different perspectives, and then restate your conclusion. The goal is to promote focus, save time, and ensure mutual understanding by being clear and logical in your communication.

Direct Rule 7: The boss is a leader among equals, so it is generally appropriate to respectfully disagree.

In direct cultures, the boss is a leader among equals. As a result, it is generally appropriate to respectfully disagree. Be honest and clear with your superiors. Be aware that always saying “yes” may be viewed negatively (you may be labeled as a “yes-man”). 

The goal is to minimize risk by promoting creativity through open discussion, build trust through honesty, and develop better employees over time.

Direct Rule 8: To maximize creativity and limit business risk, polite direct disagreement is encouraged.

To maximize creativity and limit business risk, polite direct disagreement is encouraged. The goal is to minimize risk by promoting creativity through open discussion, while also developing better employees over time. Speak up honestly about disagreements or concerns.

Even disagreeing softly or indirectly is okay. This is because direct cultures tend to prioritize mutual understanding and progress over group harmony. 

Direct Rule 9: Feedback, even when negative, can build trust and rapport.

In direct cultures, honest feedback is an important way of building trust. The priority is progress through constructive criticism rather than harmony. Feedback is seen as a way to help people develop. 

When asked, you should provide specific, honest feedback demonstrating close attention to the person’s work. Be sure to explain the reason for your perspective. 

Will I get in trouble for disagreeing with my boss?

Many employees worry that disagreeing with their manager, even respectfully, could put their job or working relationship into danger. This fear is understandable. However, the reality is that most bosses will not punish an employee for professionally voicing differing viewpoints.

Good managers actually want employees to think critically and have the courage to point out potential issues or alternatives they may have missed. As long as you disagree in a thoughtful, constructive way, it demonstrates an engaged, solution-oriented mindset. Leaders genuinely appreciate that.

Here are some tips for disagreeing with your boss:

Avoid Personal Criticism 

Ensure you disagree with the idea or proposal itself, not the boss as an individual. Never let it become personal.

Choose Timing Wisely

Do not abruptly interrupt or argue in the moment. Wait for an appropriate time to discuss your viewpoint privately.

Back It Up 

Come prepared with a logical counter argument supported by data, not just opinion. Never simply say “I disagree” without additional reasoning or data.

Suggest, Don’t Demand 

Use language like “Another approach may be…” rather than hard, direct rejection of their view. This is the entire purpose of the opinion sandwich.

Share Motivation

Explain that the purpose of your disagreement is to help the team/company by finding the best solution, not to undermine your manager’s authority.

Be Open to Being Wrong 

Have a discussion, not a confrontation. If valid points convince you, reconsider your viewpoint. Don’t be afraid to say publicly that you will need to think more deeply about the topic.

As long as you disagree respectfully and you aim to benefit the organization, most bosses will value and appreciate an employee who exhibits such professional candor and courage.

Warren’s Note: I have seen the skill disagreeing smoothly completely change how non-native speakers mindsets. Results include increased confidence and also an increase in respect from others as this skill makes you look more professional. 

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