How to Disagree with Someone More Powerful than You - Deepstash
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1. Be realistic about the risks

1. Be realistic about the 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 wrong.” Your counterpart might be surprised and a little upset at first.

But chances are you’re not going to get fired or make a lifelong enemy. First, consider “the risks of not speaking up” — perhaps the project will be derailed or you’ll lose the team’s trust — then realistically weigh those against the potential consequences of taking action.


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2. Decide whether to wait

2. Decide whether to wait

After this risk assessment, you may decide it’s best to hold off on voicing your opinion. Maybe you haven’t finished thinking the problem through, the whole discussion was a surprise to you, or you want to get a clearer sense of what the group thinks.

If you think other people are going to disagree too, you might want to gather your army first.

People can contribute experience or information to your thinking — all the things that would make the disagreement stronger or more valid.


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3. Identify a shared goal

3. Identify a shared goal

Before you share your thoughts, think about what the powerful person cares about — it may be “the credibility of their team or getting a project done on time.” You’re more likely to be heard if you can connect your disagreement to a “higher purpose.”

When you do speak up, don’t assume the link will be clear. The discussion will then become “more like a chess game than a boxing match.”


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4. Ask permission to disagree

4. Ask permission to disagree

This step may sound overly deferential, but it’s a smart way to give the powerful person “psychological safety” and control.

  • You can say 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.

  • And, assuming they say yes, it will make you feel more confident about voicing your disagreement.


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5. Stay calm

5. Stay calm

You might feel your heart racing or your face turning red, but do whatever you can to remain neutral in both your words and actions. When your body language communicates reluctance or anxiety, it undercuts the message.

Deep breaths can help, as can speaking more slowly and deliberately.

“When we feel panicky we tend to talk louder and faster. Talking in an even tone helps calm the other person down and does the same for you.”


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6. Validate the original point

6. Validate the original point

After you’ve gotten permission, articulate the other person’s point of view. What is the idea, opinion, or proposal that you’re disagreeing with? Stating that clearly, possibly even better than your counterpart did, lays a strong foundation for the discussion.

“You want your counterpart to say, ‘She understands.’ You don’t want to get in a fight about whether you get her point.”


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7. Don’t make judgments

7. Don’t make judgments

When you move on to expressing your concerns, watch your language carefully to avoid any “judgment words” such as “short-sighted,” “foolish,” or “hasty” that might set off your counterpart; one of his tips is to cut out all adjectives, since “they have the potential to be misinterpreted or taken personally.” Share only facts.

For example, you can say, “We’ve tried four projects like this in the past, and we were able to do two in a similar time, but those were special circumstances.”


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8. Stay humble

8. Stay humble

Emphasize that you’re offering your opinion, not gospel truth. “It may be a well-informed, well-researched opinion, but it’s still an opinion, [so] talk tentatively and slightly understate your confidence.”

Say, “This is just my opinion, but I don’t see how we will make that deadline.”

Remind the person that this is your point of view, and then invite criticism. Experts suggest trying something like, “Tell me where I’m wrong with this.” Be genuinely open to hearing other opinions.


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9. Acknowledge their authority

9. Acknowledge their authority

Ultimately, the person in power is probably going to make the final decision, so acknowledge that.

You might say, “I know you’ll make the call here. This is up to you.” That will not only show that you know your place but also remind them that they have choices.

Don’t backtrack on your opinion or give false praise, though. “You want to show respect to the person while maintaining your self-respect.”


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