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March 22, 2016

Disagree with someone more powerful than you? Here's how to speak up.

Daily Briefing

    Editor's note: This story was updated on July 16, 2018.

    In hospitals or anywhere else, it's challenging to disagree with someone in a position of greater authority, but there are ways to ease the tension while ensuring your opinion is heard, Amy Gallo writes for Harvard Business Review.

    Learn 7 specific conversations managers should have throughout their employees' careers

    "Our bodies specialize in survival, so we have a natural bias to avoid situations that might harm us," says Joseph Grenny, co-founder of VitalSmarts, a corporate training company.

    Although overcoming those natural jitters can be difficult, there are simple ways to appropriately express disagreement with someone in a position of greater authority.

    Before the conversation: Choose an appropriate setting

    Set your mind at ease by being realistic about what could happen when you voice your disagreement, Gallo says. The odds are slim that this conversation will ruin your career—but the risks of not speaking up could be severe. For example, a patient might suffer from complications if a nurse notices something is amiss but fails to bring it up with the attending physician.

    Unless time is of the essence, it's best to express your disagreement privately. Waiting to speak one-on-one will help the other person feel less defensive—and give you the opportunity to gather evidence to support your opinion.

    During the conversation: Show you understand their perspective

    Staying calm is your first priority, Gallo says. "When we feel panicky, we tend to talk louder and faster," Grenny says. "You don't want to be mousey or talk in a whisper, but simply slowing the pace and talking in an even tone helps calm the other person down and does the same for you."

    Start by explaining your understanding of the other person's point of view, Gallo recommends. By demonstrating that you understand the person's reasoning, you can prevent the conversation from devolving into a debate over what he or she really means.

    Next, ask for permission to differ. It may feel excessively deferential, but by saying, "I disagree and would like to lay out my reasoning. Would that be OK?", you give the other person control of the conversation, Gallo says. Once he or she has agreed to hear your opinion, you can make your case without fear that the person doesn't want to hear it.

    Focus on what you have in common—not what you don't

    As members of the same team, you and the other person share a common goal: You both want a successful outcome. Connect your disagreement to that shared goal, which will show that you aren't simply being disagreeable. You're more likely to be heard if you connect your reasoning to a "higher purpose," Grenny says.

    For the same reason, beware of using judgmental terms such as "hasty" or "short-sighted." Choose words that allow a neutral discussion about the merits of both opinions.

    Be humble

    Remember that your opinion—no matter how well-thought out and researched—is only an opinion. Try to make clear that you're open discussion, such as by saying "I'm thinking out loud" or "I'm brainstorming some ideas." This helps turn the conversation into a true dialogue in which each person has input.

    Finally, let the other person know you respect the chain of command. By saying, "I know this is your call," you can ensure that you've remained respectful while giving your opinion (Gallo, Harvard Business Review, 3/17).

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