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How to Disagree with Someone More Powerful than You

Ask permission to disagree

It’s a smart way to give the powerful person “psychological safety” and control. 

You can say: “ 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.

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IDEA EXTRACTED FROM:

How to Disagree with Someone More Powerful than You

How to Disagree with Someone More Powerful than You

https://hbr.org/2016/03/how-to-disagree-with-someone-more-powerful-than-you

hbr.org

9

Key Ideas

Be realistic about the risks

Our natural bias is to start by imagining all the things that will go horribly wrong if we disagree with someone more powerful. Yes, your counterpart might be a little upset at first, but most likely you are not going to get fired or make a lifelong enemy. 

Consider the risks of not speaking up first, then realistically weigh those against the potential consequences of taking action.

Decide whether to wait

You may decide to hold off voicing your opinion if you 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. 

Also, delay the conversation if you’re in a meeting or other public space. Discussing the issue in private will make the powerful person feel less threatened.

Identify a shared goal

Before you share your thoughts, think about what the powerful person cares about. You’re more likely to be heard if you can connect your disagreement to a “higher purpose.” 

State it overtly then, contextualizing your statements so that you’re seen not as a disagreeable underling but as a colleague who’s trying to advance a shared goal. 

Stay calm

When your body language communicates reluctance or anxiety, it undercuts the message. 

Simply slowing the pace and talking in an even tone helps calm the other person down and does the same for you. It also makes you seem confident, even if you aren’t.

Validate the original point

Articulate the other person’s point of view. 

Stating it clearly, possibly even better than your counterpart did, lays a strong foundation for the discussion. You want your counterpart to say: "She/He understands."

Don’t make judgments

When you move on to expressing your concerns, watch your language carefully. Avoid any judgment words that might set off your counterpart. Share only facts.

Stay humble

Emphasize that you’re offering your opinion, not gospel truth. Remind the person that this is your point of view, and then invite critique. This will leave room for dialogue.

Principles to Remember

Do:

  • Explain that you have a different opinion and ask if you can voice it.
  • Restate the original point of view or decision so it’s clear you understand it.
  • Speak slowly — talking in an even tone calms you and the other person down.

Don’t:

  • State your opinions as facts; simply express your point of view and be open to dialogue.
  • Use judgment words, such as “hasty,” “foolish,” or “wrong,” that might upset or incite your counterpart.

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