Disagreement Doesn’t Have to Be Disagreeable


We disagree with things people say or do all the time. At work we may disagree with a method, an outcome, a piece of data, a decision, what is said, or how something is said. We shouldn’t be afraid to disagree; it is a natural part of good communication. Topics of great importance inspire passionate communication. Strong teams made of strong personalities will always experience friction. That friction can lead to ongoing positive improvement and change, or if not managed correctly, can lead to hurt feelings and degradation of the team dynamic.

Successful communication during a disagreement requires top-notch communication skills. Knowing that there is a natural tendency for people to get defensive of their position, ensure you approach the conversation calmly and with kindness. Put your active listening skills to use by making sure you are listening fully to what the other person is saying, rather than rehearsing your response in your head before the person has finished speaking. Test your understanding of the concern by stating and restating the argument back to the person. You can start your statement with phrases such as “If I heard you correctly,” “I thought I heard you say,” or asking for clarifications. Here are some other thoughts to keep in mind regarding disagreements:

  • Focus on the issue, not on the personalities. If your mind starts going to a place of “he always” or “she never,” reframe your thinking back to the issue. Think about the movie Apollo 13 when Gene Kranz cuts through a room of disagreement and says “let’s work the problem, people.”
  • Don’t make a federal case out of nothing. Check your thinking periodically to make sure you are not going to the mat over something inconsequential. Watch out that the urge to “win” doesn’t overpower the process of negotiation.
  • Practice non-confrontational ways of stating your disagreement. A dear and wise colleague of mine starts out by saying “I’m not sure I agree with that one hundred percent.” I have found that to be an incredibly useful statement that directly identifies the disagreement while maintaining a neutral stance. Police Chief Marge Gunderson demonstrated that same technique in the movie Fargo when she told the officer, “I’m not sure I agree with you one hundred percent on your police work there, Lou.”
  • Keep refocusing the conversation so that it points to the mission and vision for your team and agency. Don’t get caught up in the weeds of things that aren’t relevant, such as things that happened during previous conversations and meetings.
  • Consider why your position is so important to you. Your emotion may be about the issue, or it may be related to something completely different. Conversely, try to understand why the other side’s position is so important to them.
  • Avoid aligning yourself only with people who strongly support your position. Not only is it polarizing to the team, you may miss important alternatives if you isolate yourself from other viewpoints. Invite others to help you check your thinking and help you focus on the issue.
  • Break the issue into smaller components and pick off the things that both sides can agree on. Once the easy part is off the table you may need to take a break and reconvene later. As anybody who has ever purchased a car from a dealer can tell you, negotiation is tiring. Don’t rush the process or you will end up with a product that is dissatisfying to all sides.
  • Consider whether a partial solution will work. Can an idea be given a trial run, partial implementation, or a walkthrough?
  • Most importantly, don’t take yourself too seriously. You might be surprised how much your behavior intimidates other people and causes them to adopt a defensive posture. Keep a smile on your face and approach a discussion in the spirit of finding a solution together. When you show up ready for battle, you have already put the process at a disadvantage.

With practice, disagreements can become as easy and natural as situations in which we are in full agreement. How do you approach disagreements? Comment below!

Brenda Dennis is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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This article is chock full of useful tips and provides techniques to stay professional as disagreements can make emotions run into overdrive! I will keep it as reference. Thanks!

Jocelyn H.

When I lived in Missouri, I took a lot of courses with National Seminars through Rockhurst College. In one of the classes I took, the speaker gave us an acronym that has stuck with me through 7 years because it really hit home. The acronym is Q-TIP – Quit Taking It Personally. Brenda, your second to last paragraph is so poignant and so vital to any conflict, disagreement or conversation. Thank you for this.

Don Welch

Brenda! My professional development plan (PDP) for the school year 2015-2016 has to do with conflict management. This article is the perfect way of stating my objective(s) in pursuing this topic. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Brenda Dennis

Conflict management is a great topic for a PDP/IDP. Development plans can be a challenge to keep relevant if you have been doing them for a while. Focusing on such an important skill is a really great way to keep it meaningful so it isn’t just another piece of administrative “stuff” we do. There are some great resources for improving PDP/IDP on this site too. Thanks!


I will be attending a meeting real soon to discuss a disagreement I had with one of my team members that got out of hand via email. The director is calling a meeting. I will use these techniques and see if they work.

Brenda Dennis

Those email things that go sideways can really be disruptive. Hopefully it can be refocused to find some common ground and work toward shared resolutions!