March 9, 2020

Apart from soggy cabbage (subjective) and wet smelly socks, there is nothing more disagreeable in life than conflict with our superiors. And we will do anything we can to circumvent it. “We’re so uncomfortable with the immediate conflict that we accept the certainty of bad results to avoid the possibility of uncomfortable conversation,” says Kerry Patterson, the coauthor of Crucial Conversations. But Holy Weeks, author of Failure to Communicate, believes that there is a way to go about it. “While disagreeing with someone powerful is hard, there are ways to do it with grace and class,” Weeks says. “Firstly, we need to learn to stop overthinking and exaggerating the risks of speaking up.” Unless your boss is a North Korean dictator, you probably won’t lose your job (or your life). So instead of biting the bullet and suffering in silence, here are effective ways to engage without being antagonistic.

Ask them if you may offer an alternative opinion

A great way to disagree with a superior is to ask for permission before you speak your mind. This gives your boss a psychological sense of safety and control. Most of the time, things go south when they feel that their position has been compromised or undermined. Lay out your (logical) reasoning for why you think their ideas may not be feasible, and let your boss decide the best course of action. 

Speak calmly and slowly

Although you might feel overwhelmed when you’re confronted by your supervisor, try to remain calm and neutral. Slow down your speech, talk calmly and enunciate every word clearly. Take deep breaths and refrain from talking too fast or in an overly excited tone because it can be mistaken for aggression. When we speak rapidly in loud tones, it instantly puts the other party in a defensive mode. Being composed also gives you a quiet air of authority, making your statements more pleasing to the ear.

Understate your confidence

Even if you (secretly) think you could be right, tone it down a notch or two. No one likes an annoying smart alec, but make sure you do your homework before submitting a well-researched proposal backed by statistics. It might be useful to understate your confidence, rather than inflate it, as your overconfidence may come across as threatening. Add an opening caveat by saying, “This is just my opinion.” Or another politically correct phrase to use is “I’m thinking aloud here”. This will let your boss have the space to decide if he or she wants to accept your opinion. Don’t be afraid to show a willingness to accept criticism—what you want ultimately is an open and fruitful discussion.

Respect their position

Respect your supervisor’s decision regardless of the outcome. This is a signal to your boss that you know your place as an employee and are not trying to overstep your boundaries. Be a team player and assure your boss, you will still support him/her wholeheartedly even if you have a different stance. 

Always be positive

Try to put yourself in your superior’s shoes and acknowledge the wisdom of their ideas. Repeat their points by showing that you understand their point of view and this can help to lessen any existing tension. Find something positive about their ideas and use it as a way to start a difficult conversation before offering your take. Keep your tone light, smile, and avoid any negative or accusatory language. Refrain from using harsh words like “wrong”, “bad” or “poor” that will inevitably upset the other party. Body language is equally important, too. Don’t cross your arms or frown, as it is an indication of confrontation. 

Find a common goal

When you disagree with someone more powerful than you, their instinctive fight or flight mode is heightened. Naturally, they will regard your dissident opinion as a threat to their authority, or worse, think that you are trying to usurp their position. In order to diffuse the situation and allow room for compromise, show your boss that both of you have a common goal—with the organisation’s interest in mind. Remind him or her that your role is to make their life easier, not harder.  

While it is crucial to be acquainted with the fine art of disagreeing with a superior, know when to draw the line and pull the plug. Choose your battles wisely and be prudent, because not every situation is going to be a positive seedbed for growth. In some cases, disagreements can lead to desirable results, but in others, it can cause strained ties and irreconcilable misunderstandings. If your superior is someone who has a short fuse or is stubbornly dogmatic in his own way, no matter what you say will do little to change the situation. It is also futile to disagree with someone who constantly dismisses their employees and puts them down with sarcasm or acerbic remarks. In this case, consider this: if your boss has an ego the size of the Western hemisphere, you might be better off working somewhere else.