How to disagree constructively

Disagreement is an inevitable part of working within a business team – but it’s essential it is done constructively.

When teams and groups are working effectively they use Disagreeing and Supporting verbal behaviours in equal amounts. Here, Disagreeing is defined as “Making a clear statement of disagreement with someone else’s statement, idea or approach, or raising objections.”

Supporting, on the other hand is “a clear statement of agreement or support for a person or their statement, opinion, idea or approach.”

Working through disagreement is an important part of a working group’s process. It typically leads to greater understanding and better quality solutions. The best relationships are built on the ability to manage tensions as much as the desire to support one another.

Some people default to showing their disagreement by ‘leaking’ emotionally; showing clear, non-verbal indications of discomfort. This can be seen, by others, as devious or even downright rude.

Others can be unhelpfully vocal, labelling their disagreements which is a sure-fired way to create further dissent. Labelled Disagreeing might sound like: ‘I disagree with that because…’ and then the speaker goes on to give the reasons. This can be interpreted as a threat or an attack leaving people stunned into silence, retreating or reacting immediately. There’s a dearth of listening and an absence of exploring the various arguments.

Between these two extremes lie four more constructive alternatives: Stating reasons before disagreeing, Testing Understanding, Giving Feelings, and Building.

Sharing your reasons for disagreeing before declaring your position gives people missing information and a context, which can be used as a basis for exploration and deeper understanding. For example, a colleague suggests that Ilie Nastase is in the all-time top three tennis greats. Rather than label your disagreement you might say: ‘You can judge greatness in a number of ways, for example: longevity, impact, talent. I don’t think Nastase matches up on all those counts, compared with Borg or McEnroe.’ This allows others to understand the basis for your position and a more fruitful discussion can follow.

Testing Understanding is a verbal behaviour which seeks to test an assumption or check whether a previous contribution has been understood. For example, Manager One says: ‘Nick has been a consistently high performer across all aspects of his work.’ Rather than directly disagree, Manager Two might say: ‘Does that include safety?’ or ‘High across all three categories – core work, projects and safety?’. His questioning invites all those present to reflect and consider the answer. It also drives up the level of clarity in the meeting, ensuring everyone is on the same page.

The third option is called ‘Giving Feelings’, which is an expression of how you feel about what’s happening in any given interaction. For example, ‘I’m feeling uncomfortable that we’re focusing on just one option’ (versus ‘I disagree with your idea’.)

Finally, Building; which is defined as: ‘Extending or developing a proposal made by another person’. Building requires us to listen to what’s being said and demands that we let go of our own sense of ‘rightness’.

If you disagree with an idea you can use Building to shape the suggestion in a slightly different direction:

Sara:   Can we focus the conference on breaking down silos?

Andy:  We could have representatives of each function in every break-out group as a way of addressing that in a practical way, which would allow us to broaden the theme.

Of the four alternatives to Disagreeing, Building is the most skilful and the one likely to have

the most positive impact.

Don’t be fearful of disagreeing, instead build variety, using the four behaviours above, into your behavioural repertoire.


By Ally Yates, author of ‘Utter Confidence: How what you say and do influences your effectiveness in business’