This week I’ve been thinking about how to communicate when I disagree with someone.
It might sound pretty straightforward, but it’s something I’ve generally struggled with over the years. In effect, not wanting to offend others if I hold a contradictory view to theirs.
Below are some of my thoughts. It ended up being longer than I anticipated, you can skip to the bottom for a summary.
Either way, I’d be very interested to hear if you’ve thought about this at all, and if so, what you’ve found to be effective.
I think the root comes from a desire to make other people feel happy. This, in itself, feels fairly virtuous however with time, it seems that hanging out too much on that side of the spectrum can actually be harmful.
For me, the issue comes with the interactions I have with people I’m close to.
Generally, I’m OK with going against the grain. Choosing to not work in finance/ consulting and instead to go into startups, and move to East Africa have been fairly atypical decisions amongst my school/ university peer group.
This feels OK because it’s me who bears the cost for the diversion from what’s expected.
I find it more difficult however when my opinion may differ from what someone else is expecting me to say.
Here it is someone else who feels the hit, and I feel that inflicting it will damage our relationship.
Reframing the dynamic
The thing that has been helping to get over the hump is to rethink what is going on in the interaction.
A good friend recommends the book Lying by Sam Harris which basically says (barring some extreme examples) one should never lie.
By giving someone your true opinion they can come to rely that everything you say from then on is what you truly feel and therefore fosters a closeness that will never manifest if there’s doubt.
The lines may blur somewhat.
It’s not that I’d make a binary switch from feeling truth to saying a lie, but by, for example, withholding that I don’t feel like eating Mexican this invisible wedge in the relationship is inserted which creates a sense of distance.
Having a full flow of honesty between people (even if it involves taking the bitter medicine in the short term) will, when done correctly, lead to a stronger, healthier relationship.
The thing I’ve been trying to work on is to always give my truest opinion at all times.
It’s been tough, especially when reading back messages in drafts where I’ve written things which often sound a lot harsher than the tone I’m used to hearing from myself.
The key has been to add some niceness, but not to deviate from the true sense of my feelings.
“Which restaurant should we go to?”
Old Sam: I don’t mind, you decide
(Ideally) New Sam: Anything but Mexican. Maybe that new Indian place?
In a relationship/ group it can often be tiring to be the one person who has to decide/ arrange everything.
From a “people pleaser” perspective I always felt that I’m doing the other person a favour by allowing them to have the full spectrum of choices, and not making them feel bad if they suggest something that I didn’t.
In a reframe, it can actually be a fairly displeasing to be the person lumped the responsibility for making decisions for everyone.
It requires a lot of mental effort and creates an unequal dynamic. Most good relationships exist on some plane of parity.
Taking the lead to suggest (not demand), for example, which restaurant to meet up at can actually be the much kinder thing to do.
“I think you should do X”
Old Sam: OK, makes sense
(Ideally) New Sam: I see your point, but have you thought about Y and Z?
A common one is if your boss asks you to do/ blocks your request for something.
Old Sam wouldn’t want to rock the boat and so would crack on and try and find an alternative way around things.
What I’ve been trying to do now is to push back on points where I feel the decision is wrong.
An “easy” thing to defer to is to ask yourself whether the person making the decision has possession of the full information.
Often a boss will have other things that they manage and so are required to make decisions given limited information on a situation. To them, it may be easier/ less risky/ less hassle to do X when it would have a much greater (positive) impact on you to do Y.
In these cases, I have tried to highlight that information asymmetry may exist.
The key in the respect thing seems to be to not attack their decision-making capacity, but instead, say that:
- with the information, available X is the right decision
- here is additional information which, in my opinion, makes Y better.
That way you don’t bruise the ego of someone being incapable of making a decision, but instead “the enemy” is that all of the facts weren’t fully available. That way it becomes easier to the stomach and makes it more likely for you to get on with Y.
In the jobs I’ve done critical thinking and a (respectful) level of push back has have been tolerated/ encouraged. If, however, your boss is too rigid/ egoistical to accept this, then maybe hold back on doing this. Or get a new boss.
“What do you think about X?”
Old Sam: Yeah it sounds good. You might want to think about A but generally I’m sure you’ll do great!
(Ideally) New Sam: it sounds worth exploring and best of luck. It’s just my opinion but I’d have reservations about A, B and C for these reasons
Sometimes I’ll chat with friends about a new business idea or similar.
Knowing how tricky it can be get something off the ground, I’d always lean on the side of encouragement. If there were some things I wasn’t sure on I’d perhaps make reference, but the bulk of my response would be for them to go for it.
I’ve tried to refine this towards being more critical. Not critical as in bad, but as in trying to poke holes in the idea.
The key I’ve found here is that to take the sting out, things should be prefaced with phrases like “It’s only my opinion but…” etc.
This way you acknowledge that what you say isn’t cold hard fact, but it gives the person an ability to hear some angles of what they’re thinking about rather than having them be glossed over.
Exposing these reservations you have about their idea could lead them to tackle them or, in fact, they’ve thought about that already and haven’t shared it with you.
To withhold such thoughts in the interests of being “nice” is, in fact, the reverse when, with time, they’ve not benefited from your true opinion on a personal level (if you didn’t think it was good, why not tell me?), developing the idea (that was actually a good insight I’d not considered) and also your reputation (how could Sam not see this flaw in the idea?!)
“Can you/ your company help me with X?”
Old Sam: let me check and get back to you
(Ideally) New Sam: I’m not the best person for this.
Similar to the above sometimes I might get asked if I can introduce someone so they can pitch their business.
If I’m the client (e.g. LinkedIn request from tech development teams), I try and politely reply and close off the conversation in one email.
Being on the other side of the fence (i.e. selling to businesses) lots of time can be sucked chasing leads for people who will never be your customer.
If you have zero interest in what someone is offering, the kindest thing I’ve found is to say so, rather than ignoring or taking a phone call out of awkwardness.
Generally, I’ve found that with:
- Acknowledgment of the request
- A firm no
most people reply favourably.
I’d say my position on this is now one of communicating more directly when with people i.e. doing my best to be forthcoming with any disagreeable views I hold, rather than keeping them to myself.
Practically it means:
- Acknowledging the views of the other person
- Stating my disagreeable position
- Explaining why I hold it
If there’s then push back we can focus on 3. (i.e. “you don’t have all the facts”) rather than the conclusion being “Sam is being nasty to me”.
If this sparks any thoughts, or links to books/ articles you’ve read recently please do share. I’m interested to think more about this.
In other news…
I’m very late to the party, but this week I have been listening to excellently named Have You Heard George’s Podcast?
If you’re not really into podcasts too much, in part because the whole start-up founder/self-help/ what’s in the news interviews can feel a bit same-y, then I’d highly recommend giving this one a try.
From his website:
George the Poet is a London-born spoken word performer of Ugandan heritage. His innovative brand of musical poetry has won him critical acclaim both as a recording artist and a social commentator.
The episode on Grenfell Tower is very powerful.
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