How to Communicate Clearly in a Disagreement

There will inevitably be times when you disagree with your co-workers on various issues. The author offers some tips for handling disagreements at work gracefully.

I grew up in the rural South where the phrase, “bless her/his/your (choose possessive pronoun) heart” was a common way of expressing disagreement or displeasure. It might sound like this… “Bless her heart, she’s as sweet as she can be but she’s dumber than a box of rocks!” Apparently, if you start out with the phrase, “Bless her heart,” you can say anything you want and it’s okay, no matter how hurtful it might be.

I see people trying to use the same disempowering communication structure at work.

Now, they’re not using the phrase, “Bless your heart,” but it seems to have the same intent. They sound something like, “You know, you are very efficient and get a lot done, but nobody else can stand to work with you.”

I propose a different way of expressing disagreement or displeasure. Let’s face it: there will come a time when you and your colleague disagree on something. There will come a time when you have a different opinion than your boss. There will come a time when you will be asked to do something that just doesn’t fit what you had in mind, and you must be able to express yourself in a way that allows you to be completely authentic AND remain employed.

When you find yourself in a conversation like this, my recommendation is to come from the mindset framework of, “I bless you, AND I bless me.” (Don’t worry, this is not as touchy- feely as it might sound.)

Part One: “I bless you”

It can be easy to dismiss, disregard, or disrespect the request, statement, or action that another person presents if it sits crosswise with you. The idea behind “I bless you” is to validate the request, statement or action. Keep in mind that the other person has just as much right to their point of view as you do yours. They enter the conversation from their version of “truth.”

So, when you approach them from the standpoint of, “I bless you,” you acknowledge that their “truth” is equally as valid as yours… even if you don’t agree with it.

Part Two: “AND”

I put this word in all capital letters because I specifically want you to use the word “AND.” It does two things for you: first, when you actually use the word “and” in conversation, it connects you with the other person (as opposed to the word “but,” which divides you from the other person).

Secondly, “and” actually leads you toward a higher order leadership skill: the ability to hold two opposing perspectives in the same space at the same time.

Part Three: “I bless me”

Although you recognize that the other person has a right to see the world in their own way, you must also state your own position or boundary. “I bless me,” acknowledges that you have a responsibility not to compromise yourself in the course of the conversation or disagreement.

Let’s see what this might look like in real life. Imagine it’s late in the afternoon. Your supervisor walks up and says, “Hey, I need you to work late this evening.” You hadn’t planned for it.

If you use the “I bless you, AND I bless me” framework, your response will sound something like, “Thank you for letting me know that there is an important piece of this project that needs my skills, AND I have made reservations to go to dinner with my husband tonight because this is our date night.”

Obviously this line is merely the opening of a conversation. You may or may not wind up working late. AND when you open with an “I bless you AND I bless me” statement, both parties are honored. Now you’re much more likely to negotiate a workable solution, maintain peace in the office, get what you need, and leave the other person feeling respected as well.

About the Author

Martha Wilson is a retired CIA Operations Officer, leadership instructor, transformational coach and the founder of Greatness In Government, a leadership and personal development firm that specializes in re-energizing mid-career government employees. Organizations that are struggling with complaints about bad leaders, discrimination, bullying and other symptoms of employee dissatisfaction hire her when they are ready for a fresh approach to leadership training. She also provides private coaching to high-potential government employees who have decided to assume responsibility for their own personal and professional development.