How to disagree without being disagreeable
Pushing back while maintaining trust and credibility
“That idea will never work!” I yell at my product manager as we have a heated debate over the placement and treatment of a microphone icon in the Amazon App. Over the years, I’ve said many things in ways I regret at work. Here are some samples of ways I shared my disagreements earlier in my career:
“We can’t work on this unless we have user research. We must do user research on this.”
“I would strongly push back on this requirement.”
“I strongly disagree with this. You’re crazy if you think this is going to work.”
“Why would we even try this? Users will hate it, making us look dumb even to try.”
Yikes. It hurts even to type these out now, but this used to be the tone I’d use anytime I thought something wasn’t quite right. I feel pretty ashamed to share these examples, but I suspect others may be in a similar boat as I was in.
Sometimes you’ll hear the “pick your battles” feedback, not because you must choose which things to focus on, but because you express yourself too strongly too often. I think of it similar to PG-13 movies; the rule is you can only say the f-word once, or else you get an R-rating. Similarly, you can only take such a strong stance periodically, or you lose trust, respect, and credibility at work. Even if you’re making the right call, people won’t want to listen to you anymore. Once trust and credibility are lost, they are hard to earn again. Trust me; I’ve had to learn this the hard way.
The Amazon Leadership Principle of Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit can often be misinterpreted as “Stand your ground” or “speak your mind.” But today, I want to share how I’ve learned to “respectfully challenge decisions” instead of over-indexing on your stance. So building on last week’s topic of picking your battles, here are a few ways I’ve learned to calibrate to be respectful while still demonstrating backbone.
Avoid reacting out of emotion
Maintaining your composure and avoiding reacting out of emotion is one of the most challenging but essential things to do when disagreeing. Pause. Deep breath. If you find your heart racing or mind flooded, it’s not the time to take a stance. Instead, reply with, “I’d like some time to think about this. Can we connect again tomorrow?” Use the time away to evaluate the approach you want to take and why you feel so strongly.
In any disagreement, it’s important to:
Not take feedback personally,
Not react out of anger,
Be willing to change your perspective with new information,
Be aware of your emotions.
Work can often be a high-pressure environment where you make on-the-fly decisions with little time to weigh the options. Often, a good first step is to seek to understand when the decision needs to be made. While some decisions are time-sensitive to avoid blocking progress on a project, most decisions can wait a few hours or days. Sometimes when I disagree with someone but am not sure the right way to frame it in the moment, I may say something like, “That’s interesting. I don’t know if I agree, but I want to think about it more. Do you mind if we sync tomorrow to discuss this further?” This gives me time to think about my perspective and consider alternative options to discuss.
When I get feedback on my work or someone challenges me on something, I think the best response is, “thanks for the feedback. I’ll think about that more.” You can use this reply for any level of feedback – micro-decisions like a word choice in a design or macro-decisions like an approach for the project. If I don’t fully understand the feedback, I’ll ask them to clarify their feedback by asking questions similar to the first list I shared above. If it’s something that someone expresses strongly, I’ll make a point to follow up with the person afterward whether I’ve incorporated their feedback or thought about it more and disagree with them. If someone gives me ‘optional’ feedback like “I’m not sure X is the right choice,” then I’ll weigh their feedback afterward. Depending on how close they are to the project, I may not follow up, but I will have a rationale to explain my action if they ask the question again.
Right time, right place, right audience
Story time. An engineer named John and I are working together to launch a new feature. One day John suggests a change to the UX that he thinks will take less time to build and be better for users. I disagree and think the design I’ve already done is best. There are a few poor ways I could respond:
“That’s a terrible idea because…” will put John on the defense and John may not feel safe to share his feedback with me in the future.
“We can’t change the designs since these were already approved.” This is another way of saying that I don’t want to do any rework just because someone has a better idea. Responding this way is bound to lose trust.
“Why didn’t you bring this up sooner?” again puts John on the defense and may sound hostile depending on the tone.
Sometimes disagreements should be directly stated. Yet it’s important to discuss different perspectives at the right time, in the right meeting context, and with the right audience. A debate on Friday at 4pm or if a detail comes up that’s not related to a meeting agenda, it may not be the right moment to express the disagreement. Here are some examples of shifting the conversation:
Right time: “Let me explore this a bit and get back to you.” This reply is better because 1) It implies I’ll have due diligence to try whatever John is proposing, and 2) It may not be the right time to disagree with John.
Right place: “That’s an interesting idea. Let’s discuss this further in this week’s team sync so others can weigh in too.” Perhaps a 1:1 isn’t a great place to disagree, and you’d rather hear others’ inputs before you take a stance. Alternatively, sometimes giving someone feedback in a large forum isn’t the right place, and it’s better to follow up 1:1. Be mindful of where you are expressing your disagreement.
Right audience: “I’m not sure I agree, but I’d like to ensure our PM can weigh in on this.” Having a debate with the wrong person can be exhausting and lead nowhere. Make sure you fully understand their perspective and then transition the discussion to be with the right decision-makers.
Before disagreeing, learn and be curious
Don’t start by saying, “I disagree with you.” Instead, start by asking questions to gather more inputs that may help you change your mind and better understand the space. Try to empathize with the other person, which starts with understanding their perspective. Here are some questions to ask before disagreeing:
What problem are we trying to solve?
What data do we have that helps us understand this problem?
What alternatives did you consider before arriving at this idea? Can you help me understand why those weren’t the right options?
Can you tell me more about [some detail in whatever you disagree on]?
I’m trying to think about how this would apply in [describe a situation that may break the other person’s point of view]. Do you think this would still work then?
What would be the consequences if we get it wrong?
What are the key considerations in making this decision? (This is important to understand factors that may be at play for the decision-making that you aren’t aware of.)
Notice how often I use “we” instead of “you” in these questions. This is critical. It demonstrates how these decisions impact the team rather than attacking an individual’s perspective. When you ask, “what problem are you solving”, the person you disagree with may feel attacked and become defensive.
When we approach disagreements with curiosity, we may change our minds. You can quickly end the debate at any point in a dispute by saying, “I think I’m wrong.” Jeff Bezos shared a secret about being people who are “right a lot”: they often change their minds. Standing your ground in your perspective is a great way to be wrong.
Focus on solutions, not problems
When disagreeing, you can either argue the merits of the idea or discuss alternative options. When you point out potential flaws in something someone else is recommending, you will quickly fall into a disagreement where you tell someone why their idea is wrong. Then, they explain why your perspective is wrong, and now you are no longer discussing the original topic. Your goal is to help the team arrive at the best outcome, not prove how wrong someone else is. So, the best way I’ve found to disagree with someone is to suggest another approach. Rather than stating, “You’re wrong because…” you could try saying:
“Did you consider [describe idea]?”
“I heard [John] talk about [describe idea]. Do you think that could be a valuable alternative?”
“When I saw [describe customer data point], it made me think of [describe idea]. Do you think we could explore that as well?”
“That’s a great idea. We could also try exploring…”
“If we consider [describe data point or situation] to be true, then we may also want to consider…”
In each of these, you are flipping the conversation from whatever you disagree with to discussing an alternative. Sometimes, the person you disagree with may have yet to consider the other options. Or, by presenting an alternative, you may learn better their rationale behind their idea. Either way, you can disagree with someone by bringing another option to the table. And in some cases, the best option may be “to do nothing.” When we discussed what features to include in the next version of our Apple Watch shopping app in 2016, I remember our Director asking, “Why aren’t we considering the option of do nothing?” The question resonated with me because sometimes the best course of action is no action at all.
So to summarize, these are ways I express disagreement with others:
It’s okay to ask for more time to think about the decision before you disagree and commit. Watch your emotions before responding.
Respectfully disagreeing starts by using different language to express disagreements.
When you receive feedback, the best response is “Thank you” without arguing over what they shared. Take the time to consider their input before you have to respond to it.
Only some moments or people are suitable for expressing your disagreement. Evaluate when is the right time, place, and audience to have the discussion.
Before you disagree, ensure you understand the other person’s point of view and the factors being weighed within the topic.
Don’t just say, “I disagree,” but bring other options to the table for the team to debate.
That’s all I have for today. Thanks for taking the time to read. I’d love to hear from you: What are your tips for disagreeing with others? You can comment publicly or reply directly to this email. If there’s a topic you’d like to read, drop me an email. If you’re finding this newsletter helpful, I’d be grateful if you share this with friends.