The dos and don’ts of disagreeing revealed

The art of disagreeing: Ally Yates, author of ‘Utter Confidence: How what you say and do influences your effectiveness in business’, shares her top tips on communicating clearly.

Leading a high growth business can sometimes feel like a marathon at a sprint pace. There’s a lot of ground to cover with a desire to move fast on multiple fronts. Long gone are the days of the entrepreneur needing to do it all. Smart business builders now surround themselves with colleagues, be they in-house or out-house. It’s a collaborative endeavour.

One of the distinguishing factors of high performing, collaborative working that gets results, is everyone’s ability to voice disagreement openly and skilfully. When people are working together effectively they use Disagreeing and Supporting verbal behaviours in equal measure. Disagreeing is defined as “Making a clear statement of disagreement with someone else’s statement, idea or approach, or raising objections.” Supporting, on the other hand is “a clear statement of agreement or support for a person or their statement, opinion, idea or approach.”

The cardinal sin of disagreeing is to label your disagreements. A behaviour label announces the behaviour that’s coming next. Labelled Disagreeing might sound like: ‘I disagree with that because…’ or ‘No, no, no, that’s not right’, and then the speaker goes on to explain why. Meanwhile, others either retreat or react, taking a back seat or mustering their counter-arguments. The result is a lack of listening and understanding, leading to lower levels of participation and sub-optimal solutions, both of which will hamper the pace of progress. Another offence is the “I agree with you, but…” line. It’s just clumsy and untrue.

Instead, try these alternatives.

Give your reasons for disagreeing first

This gives people some missing information, a context, which can be used as a basis for exploration and which deepens understanding.

Ask questions. Find out more information, check out an assumption or test whether a previous contribution has been understood. Imagine a meeting where a new business development team in a technology business is identifying sales targets. One member suggests the health sector as a potential market. Rather than directly disagree, a colleague might say: ‘What’s the likely spend, given cutbacks?’ or ‘Do you mean NHS or private?’. Questions invite all those present to reflect and consider the answer. They also drive up the level of clarity in the meeting, ensuring everyone is on the same page.

Give feelings

This is expressing of how you feel about what’s happening in any given interaction.  For example, ‘I’m delighted we seem to be making such good progress’ or ‘I’m feeling frustrated because we seem to be going around and around in circles.’ As an alternative to Disagreeing, Giving Feelings might play out in this way: ‘I’m feeling uncomfortable that we’re focusing on just one option’ (versus ‘I disagree with your idea.‘)


This verbal behaviour is rare and highly correlated with skilled performance. Building is defined as: ‘Extending or developing a proposal made by another person’. One reason it’s uncommon, is that Building requires you to listen to what’s being said rather than being preoccupied with your own views. Building also demands that we let go of our own sense of ‘rightness’ – the belief that my idea is the best or only way to go – which can sometimes be tricky for the entrepreneurial business leader. People who master Building are described as ‘collaborative’, ‘helpful’ and ‘positive’. The kind of people others are inspired to follow.

If you’ve a tendency to label disagreement, you may gain a reputation for being awkward, negative, or unconstructive. If you’re fearful of disagreeing, take comfort from knowing it can sometimes be the right thing to do. Working through disagreement using these alternatives, typically leads to greater understanding and better quality solutions. Build variety into your behavioural repertoire and help others to run at the same pace.

Ally Yates is the author of Utter Confidence: How what you say and do influences your effectiveness in business’ and an expert on behaviour analysis and the interactions that define us. She combines a deep understanding of people and how to achieve results, based on her many years’ experience working with large corporate clients around the world. Since 2000, Yates has been working as an independent consultant, facilitator, trainer and coach. She has collaborated with international business schools and has received national and international training awards.

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda was Editor for from 2016 to 2018.

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