How to Disagree (Without Being Disagreeable)

Make your disagreements not only easier to handle, but also more productive.

Mark Twain once observed, “It were not best that we should all think alike; it is difference of opinion that makes horse-races.” For that matter, it is difference of opinion that makes companies. After all, business is a contact sport, with conflict a given. The problem isn’t with disagreements, but with how they’re resolved.


To help you learn how to disagree without being disagreeable, we’ve assembled the fast company Starter Kit on Managing Disagreements. The breakthrough ideas and techniques these tools offer are designed to help you make your disagreements not only easier to handle, but also more productive. And if all else fails, remember another piece of advice from Twain: “When angry, count to four; when very angry, swear.”

I’m Ok, You’re a Pain in the Neck

Let’s face it, some people aren’t willing to admit that taking a positive approach to conflict is in their best interest. To them, conflict means fighting. Period. You’re not going to change those folks — even several years on an analyst’s couch probably wouldn’t do them much good. You can, however, blunt their attacks and go about your business. Consider these tactics from the enduring Coping with Difficult People (Dell Publishing) by Robert Bramson, a clinical psychiatrist and human resources consultant:

Sherman Tanks: try to intimidate you with in-your-face arguments. They state opinions as facts.

  • Get their attention by using their first name to begin a sentence.
  • Maintain eye contact; give them time to wind down.
  • Stand up to them without fighting; don’t worry about being polite.
  • Suggest you sit down to continue talking.

Snipers: take potshots in meetings but avoid one-on-one confrontations.

  • Expose the attack; draw them out in public and don’t let social convention stop you.
  • Get other opinions. Don’t give in to the Sniper’s views.
  • Provide the Sniper with alternatives to a direct contest.

Chronic Complainers: find fault with everyone — except themselves.

  • Politely interrupt and get control of the situation.
  • Quickly sum up the facts.
  • Ask for their complaints in writing.

Negativists: know that nothing new will work; they’ll toss a wet blanket when you’re trying to light a fire in group brainstorming sessions.

  • Acknowledge their valid points; ignore the rest.
  • Describe past successes.
  • Avoid “You’re wrong, I’m right” arguments.

Exploders: throw tantrums that can escalate quickly.

  • Give them time to regain self-control.
  • If they don’t, shout a neutral phrase such as “Stop!”
  • Take a time-out or have a private meeting with them.

Coordinates: “Coping with Difficult People,” $5.99 (Bantam Doubleday).

Don Wallace ( is a journalist living in Manhattan. Scott McMurray, ( , who spent 10 years at “The Wall Street Journal,” freelances from Chicago.