Life is made up of disagreements large and small, with everyone from your spouse, kids, or parents, to strangers on the street. But perhaps one of the most fraught and stressful situations is when you disagree with the person who can decide whether you keep your job.
So how can you argue with your boss without coming off as a naysayer or a perceived threat?
Gabriel Grant, CEO of Human Partners and author of the book Breaking Through Gridlock: The Power of Conversation in a Polarized World, says disagreements can sometimes feel threatening because they can come off as dismissive to a subject someone holds close.
“When that’s your identity, what you love, and what you value most, there’s presumably a lot on the line,” he says.
When it comes to presenting your arguments the right way, you first need to decide if you’re disagreeing for the right reasons. If there is something important to add to the discussion, and you’re not countering just for the sake of it, then consider the below for the forgotten art of disagreeing in a constructive manner:
1. Know what style influences the other party
“One of the things about having a boss is you have to know what sort of style influences them,” says Priscilla Claman, career coach and president of Career Strategies, Inc. “There’s a reason why the New York Times, among others, have all these gorgeous charts and graphs. They’re very influential.”
In short, is this person a data-rich person? Or are they more influenced by how their decisions impact others?
2. Recruit credible sources for your cause
If you’re really stuck, and the other party just isn’t hearing you at all, it might be time to widen the circle of people you need to persuade. One strategy is rounding up people who agree with you and make a joint presentation, as the more people behind a cause, the more credible it becomes.
Another strategy is to recruit the help of someone you know the other party trusts. For instance, if you know your boss really trusts a particular executive, try to persuade that person, then ask them to share the information with your boss.
“It’s actually a very good strategy,” Claman says, “but the downside is that if you’re right, you never get the credit for it. But at least you stop the problem from going over the cliff.”
When the conversation is really stuck
For those really sticky conversations that feel like you’ll never be able to reach an agreement, there’s still a chance you can stay true to yourself, get your message across, and simultaneously strengthen your relationship with the other party.
Grant, who regularly works with social and environmental change leaders, provides two tips for when you’re trying to change someone’s mind, but the conversation is at a gridlock:
1. Focus on results. In challenging conversations, we end up reacting to what Grant calls a gap between the world that we want and the world in which we’re currently living.
In other words, if your superior is really upsetting you, Grant suggests reacting in a way that is consistent with what you want in the future, not with how things are right now. So, if your goal is to have a future where people are cooperative, then being upset or angry–even if those emotions are valid–isn’t going to contribute to the future you want to create.
Case in point: Executive A sends Executive B an email saying that Executive B was angry, judgmental, and dismissive when he should have been cooperative and supportive in their last meeting. However, the email itself isn’t cooperative and supportive, so how can the result ever be cooperative and supportive?
“Who you’re being is wildly more powerful than what’s being said,” says Grant, so before you make your point, make sure you first deal with your own background conversation. Take care of any thoughts, opinions, and judgments you may have, or you won’t be able to have a successful conversation out in the open later on.
“Most of the conversations we have are like the iceberg under the water, and what’s being said is what’s above water,” explains Grant. “And if you think changing what’s being said is going to make the difference, then you’re not actually moving the iceberg, you’re just moving the ice around above the water.”
2. Identify hidden baggage that came before you. Sometimes you aren’t the reason why someone can’t hear you. Sometimes it’s baggage that’s projected onto you because of all the people and experiences the other party encountered before you.
Grant explains: “When I identify as an environmentalist, then all of the baggage, all of the background conversation around environmentalists immediately gets put onto me, so all of sudden I’m working through that, and I don’t even know that I’m working through that because I just met you.”
One of the ways you can get around this is identifying the baggage that came before you and is following you into conversations. You can do this by trying to imagine what the other party might think you stand for, what they might think you’re advocating for, and acknowledge it at the start of the conversation.
The cons of never disagreeing
Because disagreeing and conflict trigger the flight mode, and emotional stress is felt throughout the body, it’s natural to want to avoid it. But navigating those tough conversations are needed in our polarized world. It’s needed for diversity of thought and ideas. In organizations, disagreeing defeats groupthink, and that’s why the best teams know how to disagree and encourage it.
On an individual level, the art of disagreeing is needed lest we become a “yes” person to our superiors. And even if your boss isn’t directly telling you so, they want you to disagree when needed and bring something new to the table.
“It doesn’t always mean disagreeing,” Claman says, “but it does mean being prepared to disagree.”