How to Tactfully Disagree with Someone

Disagreements are inevitable. So what should we do? Keep our mouths shut or say what we think? And if we speak up, what should we say? Lisa B. Marshall, aka The Public Speaker, has the answers.

Lisa B. Marshall
4-minute read
Episode #349

Let's say you’re talking to a colleague or friend. She says something you disagree with. Sometimes, if the situation is casual and the subject is trivial, disagreeing isn’t an issue. It can be done casually and all is well. But what if it’s important, and what if the person could take offense? This can be tricky, and takes some tact.

First, you have to decide if the subject is worth disagreeing about. What if you just kept quiet? What would be the consequences of your silence? What would be the consequences of disagreeing? Sometimes it’s really not worth it. Just let it go.

But if you’ve decided you should say something, there are a few techniques I can share. Most important, though, regardless of the technique, is tone of voice. You must take extra care to keep all sarcasm, anger, or frustration out of your tone. That’s really hard sometimes. But having a good frame of mind can help.

How you should think about the other person

I’ve written about this many times, for instance, in How to Be More Diplomatic, How to Handle Criticism, and How to Have a Difficult Conversation. In order to have a good frame of mind and control your tone of voice, foster a sense of sincere curiosity, trying to see things from the perspective of the other person. Think positive thoughts about your conversation partner, assuming they have the best intentions. Or sometimes if a person uses a rude tone, I try to think, “Maybe she has a headache,” or “Perhaps he’s having a bad day.” This helps me quickly cool down. With these sincere and positive thoughts, you can now disagree with a respectful and sincere tone of voice. But you still have to be very careful with your word choice.

Think positive thoughts about your conversation partner, assuming they have the best intentions.

Disagree generally or indirectly

You can try some indirect or general phrases. These encourage the person to think through or at least explain his or her position more fully. Then you can have a broader and hopefully productive conversation. Try phrases like, "Interesting. Really?" “Are you sure that’s possible?” or “Really? I wonder if it works like that.”

You can phrase the disagreement indirectly. My dad used to tell me, “Just because it’s 'up' doesn't mean you need to say that. You can always just say, ‘It’s not 'down'!’” So you can try, “I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” (not “It’s a horrible idea!”) or “I’m not sure I can agree” (NOT “I totally disagree with you!”). Or even the words that I learned from my father: "I find it hard to believe that." 

Check out "How to End a Conversation Politely" for tips on closing out a conversation. 

Use softer words to disagree

Choose words that soften the blow. Instead of “I don’t get what you’re saying,” try “I don’t quite get what you mean.” And don’t say, “You don’t understand.” Try instead, “Perhaps I’m not explaining myself well enough” or "Can you tell me why you think that way?"

Choose words that soften the blow. 

This last one is a great example of not pointing the finger at the other person. Instead of you words, which accuse, try I or we words, which include and soften. “You need to get this done now” is harsh. “We’re looking for a nearer completion date. How can we work to get that?” respects everyone’s needs.

Disagree by finding common ground

In most disagreements, there is generally common ground where you can start. So begin by highlighting what you share, then build up from there.

“While I agree with you on <common ground>, have you considered <new point of view>?” Notice this also includes choosing softer words.

“I understand saying <summarize agreed upon point of view/common ground> about X. On this other point about X, I think...”

Don't use blunt language! Read "How Being Blunt Can Hurt Your Personal Life" for more guidance around gentle conversations. 

Words not to use when you disagree

There are some things, however, you should avoid saying.

Don’t say you’re sorry! The word sorry is seriously overused, especially by women. Only use it when you’ve done something to hurt another person. Many people will say, “Sorry, I disagree.” You’re not sorry—or you shouldn’t be. Recognize that your opinion has value, so own it and respect yourself.

Don’t say “but…” This is another one that’s used all the time: “Yes, but…” or “I agree up to a point, but…” When you say but you’ve just negated everything you said before. You’ve just admitted to common ground, or you’ve just given the person a complement, then you’re taking it back by saying “but.” However is a similar word and should be used sparingly, but is less jarring than but.

Try to become comfortable using all these approaches. Diplomatic disagreement is a great way to “win friends and influence people,” and will help you in business and in life.

This is Lisa B. Marshall changing organizations, changing lives, and changing the world through better communication. If you’d like to learn more about leadership, influence, and communication, I invite you to read my bestselling books, Smart Talk and Ace Your Interview and listen to my other podcast, Smart Talk. As always, your success is my business.    

About the Author

Lisa B. Marshall

Lisa B. Marshall Lisa holds masters with duel degrees in interpersonal/intercultural communication and organizational communication. She’s the author of Smart Talk: The Public Speaker's Guide to Success in Every Situation, as well as Ace Your Interview, Powerful Presenter, and Expert Presenter. Her work has been featured in CBS Money Watch, Ragan.com, Woman's Day, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and many others. Her institutional clients include Johns Hopkins Medicine, Harvard University, NY Academy of Science, University of Pennsylvania, Genentech, and Roche.