How to disagree without being disagreeable

Chris Lema

disagree-without-being-disagreeableYour flight has been cancelled.

I walked up to the counter, having seen the desk agent get yelled at for 20 minutes straight.

Sure, we were all unhappy that a flight had been cancelled. Boston to San Francisco is not a short flight and the plane wasn’t empty. So a lot of people were mad about having to find alternatives.

I just said “thank you.” That’s it. Slowly. Quietly. After all, it wasn’t her fault. In fact, when we first got to the desk, she hadn’t even heard the news.

But that didn’t stop someone from not only being angry but from taking it out on the agent. Yelling. Being abusive. Talking smack. Call it what you will – I call it embarrassing (for them).

She looked up, harried, and told me she’d be with me in a second. But I told her to take her time. I was in no rush. After all, my plane wasn’t coming for me anymore.

When she was ready, I thanked her again. Then I was explicit about what I needed. Not what I thought. Not how I felt. But specifically what I needed – in my case, an alternate way to get to San Diego. I was polite. But I was clear. I defined success.

And then I stopped talking. She had what she needed, to let her work, and my continued talking would have made things worse, not better. So I shut up and backed up.

I’m not much for Support

There’s a good reason why I’m not in software support. While I may be able to muster up some empathy in the right business context, doing it when someone is consistently being rude and sarcastic isn’t one of my strengths.

That said, it does make me wonder what kind of people wake up in the morning and say, “today, I’m excited to help people, even when they’re disagreeable.” Pippin is one of those guys – and he has such respect from me. Jason Coleman is another. Daniel Espinoza is another. So is Shawn Hesketh. My list could go on.

But my point is that while I can fully comprehend someone disagreeing with me (I am wrong a lot), I don’t get why someone thinks being disagreeable will help them – in any way.

Learning to Disagree without being Disagreeable

The other day WooThemes wrote about a change in their pricing and their terms. I gotta be honest, it didn’t bother me. Not because I didn’t care about the change in terms or the added cost. It didn’t bother me because I had predicted it would happen months ago. I just couldn’t see how they could scale support when WooCommerce had taken off so incredibly. And as I saw them hire more and more friends to help them, I started doing math.

So I wrote about it, particularly about the notion of “grandfathering” which people on the web have grown accustomed to. And then comments started coming in.

Some asked questions. Others gave their opinions. And then others started getting out of hand – including one guy who went from disagreeing to being disagreeable.

And that’s when I closed down the comments – because the amount of energy I was expending on restraint, on my own blog, was more than I wanted to handle. So the decision was simple.

3 Effective Ways to Disagree

So the next time you think about posting a comment on a blog, discussing things with your friends, or debating with someone you don’t know, here are three effective ways to disagree without being disagreeable.

Listen closely and stay on topic
It’s easy, when debating, to leave the topic and create a new topic as you go along. This is because staying on topic is difficult. It’s easier to randomly pick another angle to “shoot” from. Resist and pay close attention so that you’re adding to a discussion that someone might read over later and really appreciate.

Don’t repeat, and don’t go personal
Whatever you do, focus on the issue at hand, rather than attacking the person who you disagree with. Disagreements end, but if you’ve attacked a person, it’s likely the animosity between you two won’t.

Additionally, unless the person you’re disagreeing with has really short-term memory (like Memento), repeating yourself doesn’t help you. It just makes you look like someone who wasn’t listening.

Find and emphasize the places where you agree
No one wants to interact with someone who is not only a broken record but also unable to find things to agree on. It’s easy to be at odds with someone. It’s harder but more worth it when you can start by finding the points you do agree with and emphasize those. Then it’s only a few points of disagreement in a sea of agreement.

My Flight Home

So there I was at the counter. I was calm. I didn’t repeat myself. I never went personal – in fact I did the opposite (complimenting her in the midst of clearly a trying time). I was clear about how she could help me, and I stayed focused.

I wish I could tell you they decided to bring in another plane to do the very same flight. But they didn’t. We were suddenly on flights that weren’t non-stop.

But she liked me. And in sharp contrast to the person who’d just been so disagreeable, I did go home with something. In our case, it was first class upgrades all the way home.

So if you were at the Boston airport flying to SFO last summer and got all frustrated at the United gal after having a flight cancelled – thank you! Your disagreeable self really helped me out.

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  1. Love this post! I harp on this all the time! Civility is everything: good relationships, good marriage, successful children, better projects. Everybody agrees civility is a good thing but surprisingly few know how to achieve it. Lots of rules of thumbs. Don’t insult, don’t get personal. Don’t use innuendo, Highlight the good points of the opposing views before arguing why your’s is better. (“sugar then medicine”) bridge building makes the other side more receptive. The one l like best: Long after the reason for the argument is forgotten, the insults are remembered!

  2. Great Post Chris! Your story just reminded me of a similar situation with the recent change with Catalyst Theme for WordPress. When I first heard the news about their decision to drop development of their framework to piggy back off of the Genesis framework, my first notion was to be short sighted and only think about the websites I was administering that would be directly effected. When I took a moment to really dig a little deeper to find out why they made this business decision, I then appreciated their vision for the future. However, many were unhappy, talking trash and really upset. I could have easily protested and blasted an angry email to Eric and Jason from Catalyst, but after I took a moment to look beyond the immediate reaction, I actually got excited to see how the new technology will work with WordPress. Sometimes you disagree in the heat of the moment, but sometimes its a good idea to take a breath, stand back and take a look at the entire picture. Nine times out of ten, things really aren’t as bad as they really seem.

  3. This is my thought process, when I disagree with someone:

    – Do I have the time to argue/debate? NO, then move on. Yes?
    – Is it worth my time to argue/debate? No, then move on. Yes?
    – Smack myself in the head because I definitely have more important things to do.

    End of story.

  4. Having spent my share of time working in food service, retail, and telephone customer service, I can tell you that people can be shockingly rude and abusive. It seems as though they are especially so when whatever situation they’re upset about is clearly not the fault of the person they’re abusing. It takes a special kind of person to let personal insults, threats of physical injury (seriously), and other attacks just roll off.

    The kind and thoughtful people stay calm and who take the time to say “Listen, I know this is not your fault, but what can you do to help me fix it?”, even when they are angry or upset, are the ones who get a little something extra or special. A little kindness goes a long way. Sometimes all it takes is one person being kind to turn a terrible day into a good one.

  5. I particularly like this point and its something that I need to practice more:

    Find and emphasize the places where you agree

    Emphasizing the negatives is more likely to get the other person defensive, and likely he will not listen to the points of agreement, and the whole conversation cannot move forward

  6. I love a good heated discussion. So much more interesting to read than the, yay, great post, variety :)

    But, when it starts going off ranch and becoming personal then it’s time to walk away, which is easier said than done if the remarks are aimed at you. But the fact is, if you reply to every contentious comment then you’re just fuelling the problem.

    My attitude (right or wrong) is, ‘My blog, My house, My rules’, and if people step over the line (ie, get personal) I have ability to delete, block or close comments. Who decides where the line is? I do, it’s my blog.

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