how to disagree respectfully

A Project Manager’s Survival Guide in Disagreements

To disagree or not to disagree?

There are many situations in your professional life in which you need to confer or even argue with others, such as when:

  • Your manager proposes a strict project timeline, which to you seems completely unrealistic;
  • A colleague asks you to take up a task, which doesn’t seem to contribute anything valuable to the project;
  • The team interferes with your task by judging which tool you need to choose.

And many more, popping up every day. 

Even though disagreements can lead to favorable outcomes, they can easily ruin your relationships and create tension among your team. That’s why you may sometimes decide it’s not worth speaking at all, especially when you care more about your professional relationship or your counterpart seems to be a more powerful person. But not speaking at all doesn’t really solve the problem.

Thomas Crum, an author of The Magic of Conflict, says that we shouldn’t be scared of disagreeing with others. We should treat conflict as an opportunity to learn and grow rather than a toxic behavior.

Conflict can be seen as a gift of energy, in which neither side loses and a new dance is created.

But keep in mind that there is a big difference between disagreeing and disagreeing respectfully. The first one is toxic and can kill any healthy relationship. The second one is mature and professional. That’s the one I’d like to concentrate on in this article.

Focus on facts, not opinions

The only valid argument you should use in a discussion is the one that is based on fact, not just your personal opinion. Even though it sounds reasonable enough, it’s easy to forget about that simple rule during a disagreement.

It may happen that you start off with a fact, but then, when a discussion becomes heated and you realize that your argument is too weak, you can unwittingly move further to a more personal level.

When you support your statement with a personal opinion, the other party will be able to find a lot more arguments to counter your point of view. It can sometimes even seem quite empowering to offend the other person or when someone sets out to offend you.

“We definitely need to use MS Project. It has lots of helpful features.”
“Oh, really?! I don’t think so. In fact, I hate it and I won’t use it.”

Doesn’t that sound terrible? First of all, it’s easy to fight with personal opinions and experience. And secondly, it’s super easy to move a discussion from merit to a personal level. Using only facts and data helps you stay away from getting too personal while arguing with your colleague. And that can save not only your reputation but also your relationship.

Don’t make judgments

The most important rule when it comes to arguing is to watch out for the language you use. Let’s imagine that you’re arguing about a deadline with your director. As a project manager, you believe that the deadline suggested by your director is too optimistic. His proposed schedule is too tight and you’re not going to meet it. Unfortunately, the director disagrees with you, so he tries to prove you wrong.

D: “We agreed with the client that this is going to be finished by the end of this year.”
PM: “Good luck! This is so naive.”
D: “That’s what is agreed upon in terms of the deadline. I hope you can manage to meet it.”
PM: “No way. You know that this is not going to happen. What a stupid idea!”

When disagreeing with someone, avoid judgmental words like “short-sighted”, “foolish”, “stupid” or “naive.” They can be misinterpreted and taken personally by your counterpart. Share only facts, not useless judgmental words. It’s just safer and more professional this way. Instead of saying “This deadline is unreachable! What a stupid idea!” it’s better to say:

“This project is similar to project X and project Y in terms of requirements and complexity. And we weren’t able to deliver them in less than a year. This time it definitely won’t be possible to meet such a tight deadline.”

This statement doesn’t contain any personal inference. It’s supported by data and it doesn’t use any words of judgment, which could possibly hurt the other person.

Use the triple-A formula to disagree respectfully

A strategy suggested by Dr. Susan M. Heitler can help you keep the conversation going even if your point of view is completely different than your counterpart’s. It minimizes the risk of reaching a boiling point in the middle of disagreement. 

The key element of this method is not turning a conversation into an “I’m right, you’re wrong” battle. Treat each argument as a situation that may lead to a win-win solution. I know that it’s easier said than done but try it out.

Let’s imagine that as a project manager you ask your team members to register the time spent on a project. You need to monitor the schedule and report your data to stakeholders. That’s your job. But it’s definitely a less valuable task to your team members. It can be seen as a time-consuming assignment, a pain in the neck, so a conflict of interests arises between you and your team members.

PM: “Starting next week you should register the time spent on each part of the project in our new tool X.”
MEM: “Sorry, but I don’t have time for that. I hate that sort of micromanagement.”
PM: “Oh, really? Who cares about what you hate? That’s our requirement.”
MEM: “Your job is to let us work on real tasks instead of making us waste time. ”

Can you hear the anger heating up? Even if you manage to come to an agreement and in the end, your team does register their task time, the distance between you and your team widens. That, in turn, means that the escalation of conflict will continue during the next round of combat and it will affect the work atmosphere quite negatively.

The same conversation can be conducted in a more polite manner using the triple-A method:

  1. Agree – first, you need to agree with your counterpart’s point of view. The key here is to listen carefully, to try to understand someone else’s point of view and to accept what is valuable.
  2. Augment – then, you should pick an idea or a phrase that you mostly agree with and elaborate on it a bit more. Digest the information you’ve heard and assure your partner that you understand the importance of his or her arguments.
  3. Add – finally, present your point of view but not by negating everything that your counterpart has just said, but rather by using facts.

So what can you say differently in this scenario?

“Starting next week you should register your task time in our new tool X. That’s what I was asked for by my manager.”
“Sorry, I don’t have time for that. I hate this sort of controlling ideas.”
“(Agree) Yes, I can imagine. (Augment) It will probably take up a lot of precious time and energy to fill out these sheets. (Add) But at the same time, you need to understand that the client wants us to report the progress. This will make us more trustworthy.”

Why the triple-A formula really matters

By using the triple-A, you’re becoming more focused on adding the value to a discussion instead of taking away ideas from your counterpart. That’s the key to a successful dialogue. Showing that you understand and respect someone else’s point of view helps you establish a healthy relationship. This pattern also ensures that your conversation is more like a collaboration rather than a competition.

Moreover, providing a basis for your arguments and facts makes you sound more professional. Data-based arguments are not personal which makes them harder to fight off. Thanks to those simple rules, which to be honest are easy to understand but hard to implement, you can minimize the risk of having a heated discussion. They can help you clear the air when the emotional heat starts to build up.

Simply saying ‘no’ doesn’t make you a good discussion partner, no matter what role you play in your organization or how experienced you are. I recommend that you analyze the way you argue with people and keep in mind that this type of situation can affect all of your business relationships.

To learn more about the art of communication in project management, visit alexgozdek.com.

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