Everything started really well. Six months earlier, you got hired by this great company to work on a fantastic project. The kind of project that makes a career, concrete, with great visibility and exciting challenges. You got to turn around a project that started on the wrong feet.
Quickly in the role you identified potential cost savings, a great architect and a value proposition that will sky-rocket the product on the market. All fine. The plan was perfect, the project is iterating well, the team is improving, finally even the product discovery started providing positive insights.
While the project run fine from a delivery perspective, the product will be a success, the governance meetings are another story. Your proposed approach to testing and delivery is challenged by a colleague who have radically different views on the matter. So much that these discussions put you down and make you fell demotivated, you start to wonder if you should drop the ball.
A challenging disagreement with a colleague is not nothing you shouldn’t be unprepared for, let me give you another challenge to be ready for: what if it come from you boss? How do you manage the difficult conversations to come? Better, how to stay true to yourself, keep going with your motivation and over time make this disagreement a solid foundation for positive collaboration? Read on.
While managers hopelessly say that “nobody tells them the truth,” their teams simultaneously point that “we can’t speak my mind to the boss.” The result is that information, in flat or hierarchical companies, doesn’t flow between people working for a common objective: running the business, resulting in uninformed decisions and avoidable crises.
We can all appreciate that too rare are the companies culture welcoming outspoken dialogues, bottom-up and top-down. Concurrently over the years and even in the most open companies I have worked with, I encountered only a handful of people aware of how to speak truth to people in position of power.
Along my career I have learnt from this handful of people 4 tactics (and a bonus one) that you need to master and “agree to disagree effectively.”
Take it off-line and upfront
You are invited by your boss to a discussion in a week with a group of your colleagues, you know in advance that yourself and one particular person will disagree on the agenda.
Good communicators always try to “diffuse” facing difficult conversation, in this particular case why waiting for the need to disagree?
Invite the person to a separate conversation when the stakes are low and emotions are calm to agree with him/her about how to manage those moments when you disagree in the planned discussion.
This approach is even more rewarding if you disagree with your boss. After all, your boos is much less likely to take offence from your disagreement if he or she has invited it in the first place.
Define intent before content
Like with your partner in life, most people gets defensive for two main reasons. First because they believes your objections are a threat to their or the group goals, second your dissent is a signal to the person a potential lack of commitment to the agenda.
Here the objective is to manage intent before content. You will face much less defences on the later than the “perceived” formal. For a brief moment, frame your view in a mutual context that everyone cares about. Personally in such conversation I start the meeting by simply reminding everyone: “Please, let’s all assume the best in everyone opinion, intent and content”.
Failing being candid on this aspect of the conversation is a recipe for failure.
Show respect before disagreement
Let’s start by stating the obvious and clearing a myth. Diluting your disagreement – with the intent to be more respectful – is not solution, it is an offence to the other person capacity to work as a human being in a diverse environment. Disagreement is part of life, manage it well is therefore a life-skill.
Being honest with anybody is as like a lots of things in life a risk, the outcome is that you might hurt some feelings.
This said, it is important to be respectful of the others in any conversation, no matter this conversation is intern only, with clients or with business partners. You must find a way to assure the audience that you respect them equally as for their individuality, for their opinion and finally for their position.
Recently I wrote about The Cultural Impact of The Agile Transformation, this remind me the importance for us all to consider “culture” from an origin perspective in dealing with difficult conversation. There is a great deal of difference in “agreeing to disagree” with person from an Indian culture, an American or a French as myself.
When a strong sense of respect against the other individual, opinion and position are secured, you can start expressing your views openly and honestly. Stay true to yourself.
State that you disagree, own it, earn it
This is a moment in the conversation you need to be clear: “X and I already had conversation in the past about this topic, and this is where we agree to disagree, I respect X as Head of Y for his experience on the matter but I have a different opinion”. Such statement is really powerful, you state you did all what was in your power to understand somebody else position, you have been upfront and candid, you respect his experience on the matter, now transparently and without disrespect you explain why your position is different.
There is no reason to generate tension if you you have done the above. Your colleague had time to prepare an argumentation that support his/her opinion.
Now the influential moment. Ask for permission to disagree, even better: earn it. This is the trick to gain the respect of the group involved, even more if this person is your boss, this by respecting his/her position and avoiding unnecessary provocation. Ask for permission while giving your boss a reason to give it to you! This is especially true if your boss like to be in control and is not used to confrontation, more if your role need a degree of independence to be executed successfully.
Do not hesitate in an upfront conversation to state “I expect you and I will disagree on this topic. I need to know that when this happens, you will allow me to express my concerns.”
One last for the road
In 2014 I wrote a blog post titled Sell In A Funnel Doesn’t Work, How To Influence This Behaviour With Minimal Effort? In this article I denote the importance while building proposal not to only approach the client problem from one angle, your chosen solution. In short: you might have multiple ideas along the time you worked on your value proposition, these ideas have value. Use them in the way you find the most appropriated.
Similarly in the context of difficult conversation, skill-full people ensure that discord is not misinterpreted by contrasting with others intents.
Simply use contrast structure like “I do not mean that … but I do mean this” or “what I mean does not imply ….”. That prevents anyone from misinterpreting your intent (again intent before content).
It may happen you will be stopped by someone in position of power, do not assume they are not able to manage your opposition. They might take your challenge as disrespect. To avoid your working relationship to suffer, be up front and open about your dissent, clarify your intent before diving into the content of your concerns, and give your colleagues a reason to give you permission to disagree. Hopefully this will help you to agree to disagree far more effectively.
In the most critical incidents which have shaped my career as a manager I found this book an invaluable resource to undertake some of these difficult conversations. I recommend it highly.