How to Argue Well at Work

Dec 27, 2023

6 mins

How to Argue Well at Work
Rose Costello

Editor and writer

In a perfect world, we’d all get along happily with everyone: friends, family, colleagues — even the boss. We’d be as chirpy as the denizens of Barbie’s seaside homeland on a sunny summer’s day, spreading goodwill with every wave. But this isn’t a perfect world and, as Barbie found out on her trip into the Real World, sometimes other people don’t see things the way you do. Yet it’s important not just to nod along every time. What if you know why your boss’s idea won’t work? What if you see issues with a project that your colleagues don’t?

Kraig Kleeman, the founder of The New Workforce, an outsourcing group, says disagreements at work are not just inevitable – they’re super-important for stirring up new ideas and solving problems. “But, let’s face it, the thought of stepping on toes or ruffling feathers can make us clam up,” he says.

If you feel nervous about disagreeing with your work buddies, he adds, you’re not alone. Worrying about being taken up the wrong way and unintentionally offending a colleague is normal. “Our offices are like a giant salad bowl of different views and backgrounds, which is fantastic but can also make us a bit jittery about causing a stir,” he says. “Nobody wants to be that person who accidentally offends someone or starts an office cold war.”

Cancel culture

Some of us who have always lived in the Real World – unlike Barbie – have found it even tougher since the pandemic ended. “Given the current societal climate, people are nervous at work, and understandably so,” says Michael Gibbs, the chief executive of Go Cloud Careers, which trains job seekers looking for work in cloud computing. “The world has become incredibly divided about what to say, when, and to whom, and how they communicate it. People know if they say the wrong thing, their careers and personal brand can be destroyed. Cancel culture is terrifying for many, and it keeps people from being their authentic selves.”

Lienna Wilson, a clinical psychologist based in Princeton, New Jersey, has seen evidence of this in her practice. “One of the common fears among people with anxiety is that they will say something that others will perceive as racist, sexist, homophobic and that they will be canceled because of what they said,” she says. It’s not just those who suffer from anxiety disorder who are affected. According to a 2022 national New York Times Opinion/Siena College Poll, more than half of Americans held their tongue over the previous year rather than speak out because they were concerned about retaliation or harsh criticism and, compared to 10 years ago, Americans feel less free to express their viewpoint on politics or to discuss issues of race.

The speed at which information can spread exacerbates that fear. “Everything is digital, meaning you don’t know when someone is recording or filming the conversation,” says Wilson. “Then, within seconds, [they can] make it public.”

Many meetings are conducted online, but it’s not always obvious whether you are being recorded or not. “The fear is that someone is always watching you. So if you make a blooper, a mistake or say something you regret, it can appear on YouTube within seconds for millions of people to watch,” Wilson says.

Feel the fear and do it anyway

Rather than letting fear dominate, she advises practicing being assertive in everyday life. “You can’t let fear take over your life,” she says. “Being assertive is a skill that anyone can improve.” Start with small steps, she advises, such as asking for your sauce on the side in a restaurant even when you don’t need it. Or go into a store and ask where the cereal is – even if you already know. “It can be anxiety-inducing to walk up to someone and impose on them at first,” she says. “[But] this can help you to get used to speaking up at meetings too.”

It is possible to be a little too assertive. “I vividly remember a time when I butted heads with my boss in a meeting,” says Kleeman. “My tone came off way harsher than I meant, and it looked like I was attacking them personally. An awkward silence followed. Lesson learned: it’s not just what you say, but how you say it.”

So how do you say it? Spoiler alert: At the end of Barbie, the delightful dolly decides to become human. There is a lesson there for all of us: embrace the humanity inside to achieve harmony. Seeing the other side and stepping into their shoes helps – even if they are pink stilettoes.

Top tips for having a healthy argument

In Conflicted: How Productive Disagreements Lead to Better Outcomes, author Ian Leslie writes: “Underneath every disagreement, a wordless negotiation over a relationship is taking place. If we don’t settle that, the conversation doesn’t stand a chance. The most difficult disagreements can be transformed into productive conversations by paying close attention to this hidden dimension.”

Here are a few tips for those ready to transform their interactions:

1 Establish trust

Discussions flow more freely with people we trust, so it’s important to establish a relationship, according to Leslie. “Without even realizing it, we take our cues from the person or people we’re talking with, in what we say and how we behave,” he writes. “If someone indicates that they like us, we want to show we like them … If someone is hostile, we have a powerful urge to be hostile to them.”

2 Start with something positive

Once the discussion begins, Wilson and Kleeman agree that you should not jump in feet first to make your point, but should say something positive first. “I disagreed with a teammate’s plan, says Kleeman. “So I started by pointing out the good stuff in their idea, then slid in my concerns. What happened? It was an excellent, constructive chat that made the project better.”

3 Empathy is key

Understand where your colleague is coming from. “Show them you get their point before diving into yours,” says Kleeman. Leslie writes: “To disagree well, you have to give up trying to control what the other person thinks and feels.”

4 Talk About the Problem, Not the Person

It’s easy to slip into making it personal. “Focus on the issue at hand instead of playing the blame game,” says Wilson.

5 Listen Like You Mean It

Engage in active listening. Don’t be planning what you want to say next or just waiting to jump into the conversation. “Good arguing isn’t just about talking; it’s about listening too. “Tune into what the other person is saying,” says Kleeman.

6 “I” Statements for the Win

There’s no need to assign blame. “Instead of going, ‘You’re wrong,’ try, ‘I think we might look at it this way.’ It’s less about pointing fingers and more about sharing views,” says Kleeman. Disagreements become toxic when they become status battles, according to Leslie. “The skillful disagreer makes every effort to make their adversary feel good about themselves.”

7 Identify Common Ground

Find something you agree on and highlight that. It sets a friendly tone and shows you’re on the same team. “Sometimes, the other person has a point. Be ready to tweak your stance if you hear something that makes sense,” says Kleeman.

8 Know When to Take a Break

Don’t push too hard if the conversation or meeting is not going well. “If things heat up, it’s cool to hit pause,” he says. “I suggest revisiting the chat later when everyone’s had a chance to chill.”

9 Only get mad on purpose

No amount of theorizing can fully prepare you for the emotional experience of a disagreement, according to Leslie. “Sometimes your worst adversary is yourself.” So don’t give in to any rash impulses to dominate.

10 Be real

Nothing beats authenticity. “All rules are subordinate to the golden rule: make an honest human connection,” says Leslie.

Arguing well at work isn’t about getting your way at all costs, but about finding fresh ideas to hit the company’s goals together. “Especially in tough times, being able to hash things out constructively is super-valuable,” says Kleeman. “It’s less about winning the debate than moving forward as a team.” Tricky talks can be turned into pathways for excellent ideas and mutual respect.

What to say in a healthy discussion:

  • That’s an interesting point

  • You might be mistaken there

  • I’d love to see the data on that

  • What would you think of…?

  • How about we look at it from X angle/perspective?

What not to say – even to your dog:

  • Calm down. There’s no need to get upset.

  • Why don’t you ever listen to my ideas?

  • You don’t know what you are talking about

  • That’s crazy/ridiculous/stupid

  • That just isn’t going to work.

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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