Learning & Development, Talent

Conflict Resolution: How to Politely Disagree

Disagreement is a natural part of any professional setting. By and large, companies exist to make money, and employees work at their jobs to make money.


The success of a company and the success of individual employees within that company often boil down to what decisions they make on a day-to-day basis: Is this new opportunity worth the risk? Have we sufficiently tested this new product? Who should head this new initiative?

Disagreement Doesn’t Have to Mean Conflict

With money and careers riding on the answers to such questions, it’s understandable that conflict can arise when different stakeholders have different positions on the right answers.

But disagreements don’t necessarily have to turn into conflicts, and conflicts themselves don’t necessarily have to turn into shouting matches resulting in hard feelings and decreased morale. At the same time, avoiding conflict doesn’t mean choosing not to disagree and giving in all the time.

In other words, it’s possible to disagree both politely and productively, and it’s important for employees to understand how.

“The first [step in learning to disagree more politely] is to consider how much you, and the people you are disagreeing with, are inclined to ‘couple’ or ‘decouple’ the issues that you think about from wider political and social factors,” says Christian Jarrett in an article for BBC.

“The decoupling concept originates with psychologist Keith Stanovich, who used it to describe the ability to think about hypothetical concepts separately from how things are in the real world,” says Jarrett.

Those who tend to “couple” see things as inextricably embedded in a wider matrix of factors, while those who “decouple” prefer to zoom in and consider an issue in isolation. 

Practicing Paradoxical Thinking

Next, consider the concept of “paradoxical thinking,” a concept being developed by psychologist Boaz Hameiri. “The basic idea is that rather than confronting someone’s beliefs head on, you present them with such an extreme, absurd version of their own beliefs—for instance, through leading questions—that they willingly reconsider and soften their original position,” says Jarrett.

Hameiri recommends using this approach subtly and tactfully, as once others realize you’re using it, it can lose its effectiveness or even be perceived as offensive.

Additionally, Jarret points to data suggesting that while most people may have a tendency to dismiss facts that are contrary to their firmly held beliefs, incorporating facts into arguments does seem to work in the long run.

Finally, it’s always important to simply be nice and civil. By the time people start shouting, the argument is likely already lost.

Disagreeing Agreeably

Disagreements and conflict have negative connotations, but they are essential for any successful business. Often, differences of opinion exist because smart people are thinking independently about the best path forward. Shutting off the debate stifles creativity and the ability to find the best solutions. The key is to have those debates professionally, politely, and productively.