Can you share ways of sounding less direct and polite while contradicting / disagreeing / sharing ideas in a business context?
October 7, 2012 3:43 PM   Subscribe

Can you share ways of sounding less direct and polite while contradicting / disagreeing / sharing ideas in a business context? For example in a scenario where one wants to say : Why don't we have a website for this product a more polite way of saying the same thing could be: I am new here and was wondering if there would be any value in having a website for this product. I would love to hear ideas around how individuals can sound polite and make their point in business setting where often times you need to make your point to senior management. Also, Any books or websites that can help with this?
posted by r2d2 to Work & Money (13 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Asking questions is an excellent start, in particular, questions that invite much more than a simple yes or no response. Continuing with your example, I might try wording like, "In what circumstances would it make sense to have a web page for this product?" or "What are the downsides to having a website for this product?"

But I don't mean to suggest this as a passive way of trying to make your point. Ask questions that you're genuinely interested in hearing a response to.
posted by browse at 4:00 PM on October 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

I always will recommend Hostage At The Table.
posted by nickrussell at 4:07 PM on October 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Similar to browse, I think the most foolproof way to do this is to genuinely ask questions first and seek to understand, rather than going in and assuming that your predetermined idea is the right answer. So you might ask how websites for products are handled and if there's a process for creating those websites, or if there's a central website for all products. Don't go in with the idea that the rest of the company is a bunch of simpletons who need to hear your ideas, just ask questions to understand whether action X has been done and why or why not. Specifically for your example, I would ask a few people involved in the creation of the product and in marketing it whether there's a website, why not, and if there are any plans in the future. Often, you'll find that the overlooked idea gets taken up rather quickly: "We should have that! Let's take it to the project manager." Or there may be a legitimate reason why the current state exists: "The first release usually precedes the first install by 6 months. We don't market it until the first product is live because customer calls for a half-baked produce are unproductive."

how individuals can sound polite and make their point in business setting where often times you need to make your point to senior management

This is a very different question. There's no polite way to go to senior management and say "marketing / project management is very wrong and we need a product website right away." You're undercutting people and you either need to be ready to face the burnt-bridges consequences or you need to not do it. When I'm in a meeting and find out that some has very kindly sold me out, it doesn't matter how nice they were and how much they smiled, I know I'm being thrown under the bus and will react appropriately. The same is true for anyone who's been working for 5+ years.

However, reframing the issue with yourself will help significantly. If there’s any way to treat the difference as you adding something to the project instead of disagreeing, then do it that way. Use the “Yes, and” technique from improv (Google it if you don’t know what I’m talking about). “I agree that this product launch is critical, and I think we should look into a product website.” “Yes, we should be flexible when training new employees, and we should have an established written training program that recognizes that flexibility.” In the last example, notice that I contradicted the original idea (flexibility vs established written program) but added my view as an addition, not a contradiction. The end result is likely to be a compromise (a written training program with lots of flexibility), but it still gets to what you wanted to suggest. You can get a lot of mileage out of that technique without ticking people off.
posted by Tehhund at 4:19 PM on October 7, 2012 [4 favorites]

I try to reference other people at the table and their areas of expertise, also the possibility of variables unknown to me and/or prior trials of similar ideas. "I know, Jennifer, you have a lot of experience in X, so please chime in, anyway, I was wondering Y." "I'd love to hear about historical project Z, which may shed light on this, but I was wondering Y." Well, you can definitely improve on my examples.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 4:20 PM on October 7, 2012

I have to do things like this all the time, though not about websites. I don't know what kind of demographic you fall into, but I am a young and fairly small female with a voice and affect that is naturally rather girly, so my problem is triggering the "that's nice, young lady, but you can't possibly know better than we do" defensive reaction. So I don't know if my advice would work for you if you are like a large and imposing man and your problem is that you scare people when you give your contradictions and disagreements.

-I actually really try to avoid asking questions, unless I have to. By "have to" I mean a situation where I say, "okay, let's do this" and someone suddenly says "we can't." If I don't know why they think they can't, then I have to ask why. But if I am presenting my ideas, I'm not going to lead with questions about whether something can or should be done because that is actually my role, that is what I am there for - to bring a new perspective on what can or should be done. (Of course, it goes without saying that you need to learn about and understand the situation you are coming into before you start coming up with ideas.)

-I try to stay really far away from couching things as a criticism of what has been done in the past. The framing that I try to create is: there are many options and tools available to us which can XYZ (improve efficiency, increase sales, etc.). Let's look at what they are.

-I try to concretely show what each option would do - what it would improve, how, and by how much. I try to use numbers whenever I can, or use examples that have numbers I can talk about.

-Usually, people want to know:

-Why they should do something. What is in it for me? What will change? It is best to get as specific as you possibly can here.

-How easy or hard will it be? How much will it cost? How many work hours will it take to implement?

Then they want to know the ratio between those two things, generally speaking.

-They also want to know HOW you are going to do it. You will have way more success the more you can break this down into terms that are extremely simple, not confusing, and easy for anyone to understand.
posted by cairdeas at 4:27 PM on October 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

if you disagree about something lead with the problem, not the fact that you think it's a bad idea. so, not "i disagree because..." instead "hmm, that's interesting, but what would happen when X, Y, Z happens?" maybe they have a good explanation and you'll learn something, or maybe you'll point out a critical flaw in a plan.
posted by cupcake1337 at 4:36 PM on October 7, 2012

Get acquainted with oblique phrases:

"I would suggest"
"What about this idea..."
"Have you considered...?"

And in a situation where someone is in charge of a specific activity, such as the website, the best suggestions are those which invite that someone to take it over and implement it as his own idea, particularly if that can be done without his realizing it.

That is, I acknowledge, a bit of an art.
posted by yclipse at 5:16 PM on October 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've found it useful to ask "What is the status of x?" instead of "Why isn't x done yet?" - more neutral, less accusatory, less assuming.

"Have people thought about doing x?" is also useful when trying to suggest an idea, since in many organizations most seemingly-good ideas have already been considered and discarded/postponed for various reasons.
posted by dreamyshade at 5:38 PM on October 7, 2012

Run, don't walk, to this URL, then bask in the wisdom of Dale Carnegie as he tells you How to Win Friends and Influence People. It's a quick and entertaining read, and is not (as one might fear) a bag of sleazy tricks. Indeed, the persuasion techniques it advocates generally hinge on giving more consideration to the other person rather than circumventing their defences in some underhanded manner.

(Thanks, Tom-B!)
posted by pont at 6:37 PM on October 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thanks everyone!

Loved these phrases:

Get acquainted with oblique phrases:

"I would suggest"
"What about this idea..."
"Have you considered...?"

Keep them coming - Thanks!
posted by r2d2 at 7:34 PM on October 7, 2012

It's also very cultural and individual dependent. Some workplaces are collaborative and non-confrontational, so asking questions and getting a consensus before a decision is made is important and if you don't, people will be deeply unhappy. Other places focus on decision making and clearly defined responsibilities for example, so the same consensus building is seen as someone unsure and weak trying to delay a project.

You sound like you're trying to develop your own 'work voice' in difficult circumstances. If you have to meet a variety of people and persuade/manage them, you'll need to focus more on figuring out quickly what their style is and how to adapt to it. Books on emotional languages and communication styles are useful then. The better managers I know do this, tempering their personal style to work with different staff, e.g. being more analytical and timeline driven with one, more chitchat and problem-bouncing with another.

It's exhausting though and if you are in authority, people should generally be adapting to your style more than you to theirs.

Cairdeas has it spot-on about figuring out your overall impact - a tall physically imposing man might need to focus on encouraging feedback where a short slight woman needs to focus on conveying authority. If you prefer a direct blunt discussion style and your industry and workplace allows for it, that could be your individual style.

A red flag - I personally do not like feeling manipulated or flattered into a decision at work. You either have to be very good at manipulating (experienced sales/PR people in action are scary amazing) or sincere in what you say. The Dale Carnergie book is vastly better than the NLP (neurolinguistic programming, basically business pick-up artistry) books which IMO promote emotional lying. You get a short-term win, but if people know they've been played, it's unpleasant. Guy Kawasaki writes about sales and persuading people in a way that feels sincere and honest to me.
posted by viggorlijah at 7:37 PM on October 7, 2012

It sounds like you mean diplomacy rather than politeness. The key is to convey respect and genuinely listen. Asking questions is a fantastic way to do that. You just lead people down your train of thought by asking things like "Why wouldn't this work?" or "Has this been tried before?" but you have to have genuine humility and not be condescending. Personally I find it helps be overly deferential when I feel like I am going to meet resistance, or I'm dealing with a big ego ("I'm sure you've thought of this, but..." "You obviously know more about this than me but..."). If you can lead someone to your conclusion this way, they'll feel ownership in the idea and be more motivated to follow through. People love to explain things they understand, so stroking their ego by deferring softens the blow if you outright disagree with them. Also, you'll get more buy-in if you can convey that you've really listened and understand what they've told you because it turns out people would rather be heard than agreed with.

The most counterproductive thing you can do is put people on the defensive by assuming things and not listening.

Being able to disagree with people without making them defensive is one of the greatest skills you can develop.
posted by TallulahBankhead at 7:39 PM on October 7, 2012

Any thoughts on which companies in the US have a confrontational culture vs a collaborative culture? Simply put - which companies have a culture where people passionately argue without taking things personally (confrontational) vs where people tend to mostly agree with each other even if they actually don't agree.
posted by r2d2 at 8:34 PM on October 10, 2012

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