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Resolving Conflict in the Workplace

Dear Robin,

Sometimes disagreements in meetings (virtual or in person) get heated. How can I respectfully disagree with someone in a meeting?


First, I’d like to separate out discussions about respectful (or disrespectful) ways of disagreeing versus heated disagreements.

What Are Respectful Disagreements?

Respectful disagreements focus on the issue at hand: each person’s view or position, why (e.g., data or other information that informs the position) and, importantly, a desire to understand other people’s positions. In some cases, disagreements stem from people identifying different problems, or having different information. That’s why it’s so important to understand where each other are coming from. Disrespect can also stem from presuming that you are “right” and the other person is “wrong” and conveying that attitude—whether you’re aware of doing so or not.

Respectful disagreement also includes focusing on commonalities, such as a common goal of a successful launch or realistic quarterly expectations. It can be easy to lose sight of this element, so it’s very helpful to stop trying to persuade each other and check in about the common goals you have. Recognize that you may not be “right” so stop trying to be right. Get a bit of distance from your position so you can acknowledge other people’s valid points.

Heated Disagreements

Respectful disagreements can sometimes get heated: one or more person conveys strong emotions. That means the person cares deeply, which can be great, since it means the person is engaged. That said, not everyone is comfortable with other people’s strong emotions. In that case, it’s important for the person who is uncomfortable to take responsibility for their discomfort, and not “blame” the other person for having strong feelings.

Don’t Get Personal

However, strong feelings should not be an excuse for the discussion to get disrespectful, which is when it gets personal—one (or more) person conveys contempt for people who hold a different view. Getting personal can mean saying—with words, tone, facial expressions, or other non-verbal communication--that some characteristic of the person is deficient.

Examples are:

“You don’t have the background to understand,”

"You came late, so of course you don’t understand the full picture,”

“You haven’t been here long enough,”

“You’re too young to understand,”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,”

“You’re an idiot.”

Notice that there all the focus is on “You” rather than “I.” It’s more respectful to refer to your own position:

“My background is different than yours, perhaps we’re seeing different things?”

“I can share with you the information from the beginning of the meeting, so it’s clearer where I’m coming from.”

“My position is based on things that have happened while I’ve been with this organization.”

With disrespectful disagreement, things go from a discussion about the issue itself to some aspect of the person who holds a different view.

Steps for Respectful Disagreement

To have respectful disagreement:

  1. Stay focused on the issues at hand.

  2. Try to understand others’ position. To really see where they’re coming from and why. Ask questions. Convey your desire to see it as they see it so you can fully understand. (You may be looking at different problems or facets and thus talking past each other without realizing it.)

  3. Try to explain your position in a way that doesn’t presume you are correct.

  4. Don’t get personal. If you find yourself feeling contempt for the other side (or other person) take a deep breath, and focus on working with the person for the good of the team or organization.

  5. Try to find common goals you can agree on.

  6. Only then can you both try to problem solve and negotiate, really listening to each other.

Disclaimer: This question and response is provided for informational purposes only, and you should not act or refrain from acting on the basis of this content. It is strongly recommended that you immediately seek legal or other professional advice if you believe you are experiencing a problem requiring professional assistance. Robin Rosenberg and Live in Their World, Inc. disclaim all liability for actions you take or fail to take based on Dear Robin content.


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