I was reminded recently of a sequence from the TV show Friends, where Chandler goes on a date with Rachel’s boss. He ends it with “Well this is great, we should do it again, I’ll give you a call” despite not enjoying himself or wanting a second date, or having any intention of calling her. Rachel calls him out on it and tells him he has to go on another date but end it properly this time. Well, you can guess how it went…

So why do we find it hard to say no? Or even to disagree?

It traces back to some of our deepest instincts: to stay safe, when we think disagreeing might be dangerous (might get us fired), and to belong, when we think disagreeing might cause us not to be liked, or to be ostracised. It’s usually easier and more comfortable to agree, to say yes, even when we don’t really mean it.

In reality, most of those risks are overblown, and it’s less about whether we disagree, and more about how.

It’s worth noting that while it feels easier to agree in the moment, it’s not without consequences. There’s also a risk in not speaking up, risks of things going wrong, risks of errors going uncorrected, risk of loss of trust in you, perhaps a risk you’ll be tied into something you don’t want or have time to do.

When we are uncomfortable, if we do manage to speak up and disagree, we often end up blurting something out. It gets it out faster, so we feel discomfort for a shorter time. However, this also makes it harder for the other person to hear. They might miss it entirely if you’re very fast or, let’s be honest, when we blurt we can be a little clumsy in our language.

So, how can we disagree constructively? Here’s five things to think about.

First, slow down. Take a breath. Remind yourself that your fear is probably overblown and if it helps, remind yourself of the risks of staying silent.

Second, try and think about the language you use. Saying “I think you’re wrong” is a very different thing to “I have a different perspective on this”. One is personal, directed at the person in a negative way that is likely to feel like an attack. The other is task focussed. Now don’t get me wrong, there are absolutely times where “No” is a complete sentence. But, it can often help when we soften our language a little, especially in a professional setting.

Third, don’t be “right” about it. If you disagree from a place where you’re convinced you’re right and the other person is wrong it won’t go well. However you frame it, you will likely only make both of you more entrenched and less able to hear any alternative view. Offer the idea without being attached to it, share your perspectives, and relate to disagreeing as starting a conversation, not ending one.

Fourth, it can help to remind of your shared goal. “I have a different perspective which I think might help us achieve XYZ faster and more efficiently”. “I think we might not be giving enough weight to ABC which would suggest a different approach might work better to get us to our goal”.

And fifth, have empathy. If the other person doesn’t react well, remember they’re human. It might not be the time to push your point at that moment, but to come back later and say something like “hey, I noticed you seemed upset in the meeting and kind of shut down the discussion, are you OK?”.

This (like many other things) is also an area where practice helps. When we disagree, it activates the parts of the brain involved in cognitive dissonance, the feeling of uncomfortable tension that comes from holding two conflicting thoughts at the same time. Studies have shown that people who disagreed less frequently had stronger activation in these brain areas when they actually disagreed. In other words, if you agree with others more frequently than your peers you may have a stronger uncomfortable feeling of dissonance when you actually disagree.

So if you’re someone who does tend to bite their tongue, and then maybe complains to everyone else later or just stews in your own self-righteousness*, try speaking up a little more. You might find you blurt at first, that’s OK, it gets better, and easier, with practice.

You weren’t put on this earth to stay silent. Whether with your team, your boss, your partner or your friend, trust that they want, and in fact actually NEED you to speak up.

The other part of this is of course, how to be a leader who welcomes different views, and creates an environment where it isn’t only safe, but encouraged to disagree, to speak truth to power. We’ll look at the flip side next time.

*I can safely say this because this has been me MANY times…