I’ve had a few situations recently where I had to disagree with clients. As an independent consultant, my disagreement was a little easier to deliver than you might experience. My clients are paying me for my point of view and being a “yes man” isn’t what they want. It got me thinking about my years in Corporate America and how many of the guys I worked with expressed their disagreement. Most of the time was when we were in meetings where someone disagreed. There seemed to be two very different types of behavior. I didn’t fit into either camp.
Here’s what I saw. Let’s say management was proposing a new program for our customers. The new program wasn’t as rich as the programs had been in the past. Many of the guys were not pleased. What was the response? There was either Attila the Hun or Caspar Milquetoast. I found that the Attila the Hun types went into attack mode and started arguing why the program would not work. They would angrily say that we would loose customers and lose all credibility with them. Then there were the others. The Milquetoast group never said a word. They said absolutely nothing and kept their thoughts of why they disagreed inside. Now I know why so many of them got ulcers. When I disagreed, I could never start in attack mode. (I must admit that if I were attacked in business, I sure could come right back. You betcha as Sarah Palin would say!) What I did when I disagreed was different than either of the groups I saw. My strategy was to be agreeable about disagreeing. Here’s what I did.
I would start with some data. With this example, I would cite some sales data based on previous programs. I find that men in business respond to data first. They don’t want to hear about your emotions first. Maybe later you can express them, but if you are going to disagree, you have to start with the data first. Then I would make sure they accepted my data. If they accept the data, they can’t attack you later. After I got buy in for my data, I would start making my case for disagreement. I would say that I think that if the goal of the new program is to increase sales, then we might want to look at a different idea. Then I would offer a suggestion.
I never would disagree without having another idea ready. I’ve seen too many people disagree without having another idea to suggest. That makes them look like complainers and in business today, there isn’t time for people who simply complain. If you complain without an idea you’re a whiner and that won’t get you support from others. In fact, it might lose you support on an idea later on since people try to avoid whiners and don’t want to be associated with them.
It might take you a little longer to express disagreement this way. You have to be able to make your case before you disagree. In the end, I think the person disagreeing my way is perceived by others –especially management– as being a stronger business professional. That’s good for your career. As you attend more meetings with others, be careful how you disagree. You can express your disagreement without being disagreeable.