How to Respectfully Disagree in Writing at Work

Disagreement is an inevitable part of relationships and many of our relationships are at work. We rarely talk about how to disagree with our bosses or coworkers, even though we witness the classic signs of poor communication—criticism, contempt, defensiveness, stonewalling—every day. Sadly, these “Four Horsemen” (coined by Drs Julie and John Gottman) are very accurate predictors of a harmful relationship.

Seeing these Four Horsemen crop up at work is a scary trend. Social connections play a central role in fostering a sense of purpose and well-being in the workplace. It’s no surprise that negative relationships lead to burnout, decreased employee retention, and decreased innovation. By honing your ability to disagree, you can save your work relationships and improve your performance. This article helps you determine if you should disagree in writing and outlines the steps to go about doing it respectfully.

Should you disagree?

Before you start furiously typing out a response, take a moment to evaluate the situation. Has some universal virtue一honesty, integrity, respect一been violated? If not, maybe the circumstance will sort itself out. Are you new to a company and find yourself confused about why things are done the way they are? Allow yourself time to settle in and understand the history of the company and the work environment before formally disagreeing. Are you disagreeing out of spite or jealousy? If you’re not doing it in good faith, expressing your opinion is not beneficial.

Next, decide whether or not writing is the right vehicle for feedback. Do you need an immediate response? Maybe a face-to-face conversation is a better way to exchange thoughts. Of course, conversations aren’t always possible, and sometimes getting everything on paper is a better way to communicate your feelings. 

Finally, ask yourself if your feedback should be private. These days, it’s tempting to disagree in a public chat (such as a work-related Slack channel) or on a large video call, but that is unproductive. It embarrasses people and makes them less likely to take your disagreement seriously一now and in the future. Sharing your thoughts privately can make people more receptive to hearing your side of the story and garners respect.

Take the time to set expectations

Most of us don’t think about how we’ll disagree at work the day we start a new job, but we really should! During your first month, casually bring up to your boss that you’d like to set guidelines for disagreeing at work. He might be shocked at first, but later he’ll be pleasantly surprised. Discussing this when stakes are as low as they will ever be sets you both up for successful conversations in the future.

Besides talking about disagreement upfront, show mutual respect for your manager and peers. Demonstrate compassion for others in your daily activities and actively look for ways to assist your team. When you end up disagreeing, people will think about how you’ve treated them in the past. If you have a track record of positive interactions, your colleagues will probably give you the benefit of the doubt, knowing that you’re simply trying to help.

Think before you respond

Nothing is more frustrating than receiving an email with unclear or rude feedback. Emails like this just upset the receiver, defeating the whole point of disagreeing. Yet when emotions are high, it’s tough to write clearly and effectively. So as soon as you find yourself about to disagree, don’t rush towards your keyboard. Instead, pause and take time to collect your thoughts.

If you have the time, go for a walk or talk through your thoughts with a friend or family member. Ask yourself if you actually disagree, or if you are angry at the situation. Then put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Why might they have acted a certain way or decided on a certain approach? Without asking this question, you might be practicing fundamental attribution error—that happens when you perceive someone’s behavior as critical of you or your team, when, in reality, they might be reacting to something else you may not even know about. 

Once you’ve calmed down, established that you have a legitimate disagreement, and considered the other person’s point of view, get to the root cause of your disagreement. What, exactly, is the problem? And how can you address it? Brainstorm suggestions and jot down a few bullet points. Then, don’t send it—sleep on it.

Framing is everything

When you wake up, take a look at those bullet points. Do they fully explain where you’re coming from? Do they sound accusatory? Are there inflammatory words? Read what you’ve written from the perspective of the person who will consume it later. 

Make sure your writing frames your disagreement in the context of a mutual purpose or a company mission. This ensures the receiver knows you’re disagreeing for a particular reason. Pay close attention to your language. Your writing should sound like you’re disagreeing with an idea, not a person. Don’t label disagreements as “stupid” or “dumb” and don’t “blanket” disagree. It should be obvious that you are disagreeing with a specific aspect of a project or a direction.

Edit out your feelings

After you feel good about how your argument is phrased, it’s time to edit. Take as much emotion out of your writing as possible and stick to the facts. Articulate your points clearly and be truthful about why you disagree. Also, suggest a rational solution or two to show you’re not just complaining. If the situation demands it, ask your coworkers how they feel and what they think is the right thing to do, too. Maybe they have ideas that are worth including in your writing.

Lastly, balance criticism with honest recognition. Criticism without honest recognition hardly ever sways the mind and heart. Praise good ideas you do agree with. Appreciate the fact that others are willing to hear your side of the story. Not only does this practice show you care, it sets you up for healthy, respectful disagreement in the long term as well. 

Ask for the other person’s opinion

Finally, end in a way that values input. A great way to do this is by posing thoughtful questions that invite a response. Then give the person a chance to reply, otherwise, it feels like you’re ganging up on them. Be polite and allow them to express themselves. You never know, they might ask fantastic questions you never thought about, offer methods of improving the current situation, or may even change your mind! Even if they don’t end up agreeing with you, their feedback will ensure you disagree more constructively with them in the future.

Prepare to disagree

Respectfully disagreeing in writing gives you the opportunity to tweak your phrasing and make sure you get across everything you want to say. Writing enables you to say what you mean without being accusatory. It also gives the receiver some time to process what you’ve said. And, while counterintuitive, disagreeing in writing fosters a connection between you and your coworkers. It highlights the fact that you care deeply about their opinions, enough to say something. thot

Now, putting this all together without making mistakes is difficult. Fortunately, Homer can help you make your argument clearer and more concise. It identifies complex sentences and paragraphs and pinpoints where you can pare your writing down. Feel more confident disagreeing in writing with a free trial of Homer today.

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