Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The art of verbal diplomacy at work: disagreeing without being disagreeable, Part 1

Let's face it: at some point at work, someone is going to say something, and you're going to think it's incorrect/slightly off-base/ridiculous.  Depending on what the issue is, you may decide to let it go; picking your battles is a huge first step in disagreeing with others.  Use your energy wisely.  It's probably not necessary to get up in arms if someone misquotes who won the NBA Finals in 1986 (it was the Celtics, by the way) or who designed the World Trade Center Towers (Minoru Yamasaki).  However, if you decide that you should call someone on a misstatement, there are a few things to keep in mind.

As we discussed last week, inappropriately framed criticism at work makes you look bad.  If you want to be heard, keep it civil and remember the following:
  1. Any statement generally falls in one of three categories: True, Partly True, or Not True.  All you have to do is address the amount of truth in the comment/statement/criticism--no more, no less.  If Patrick has a history with more than one project manager of missing deadlines, then saying "Patrick gets his work done late" is True.  If Patrick missed the last couple of deadlines but is usually on time, then saying "Patrick gets his work done late" is Partly True.  If Patrick is rarely if ever late with his work, then saying "Patrick never gets his work done on time" is Not True.
  2. Deal with the problem, not the person.  For example, your statements need to be more "when we miss deadlines, it makes us look unprofessional" versus "When you slack off and don't get your crap done, we look stupid."
  3. Keep your tone of voice even.  This can help keep the conversation from getting heated, which is when people take things personally and say things they don't mean (or do mean but aren't meant for anyone else to hear)
  4. Keep your disagreement in the service of the job (or relationship).  You want Patrick to be on time so that the project team has enough time to review everything once more before the work goes out, and that makes your office look good.
  5. Choose your words carefully.  "Always" and "never" are loaded words, so either throw them out or use them sparingly.  Very few things happen always and never.  The sun always shines during the day, and it's never out at night...unless you live above the Arctic Circle.  Also, see the statements in #2 above; words like "crap" and "stupid" have more emotional (and insulting) meanings than "miss deadlines" and "unprofessional."  Again, this is a good place to avoid profanity.
Having said all this, what do you do?  First of all, be clear as to what your objection is.  Is the other person misquoting a fact (e.g. she says that it will take a week to get the drawings done, but it will really take two weeks)?  That situation is easily resolved: a simple, "Actually, Mark, given the rest of the work we're having to do on the site plan, it's going to take us about two weeks to get all that done" will make that happen.  Some folks (more women than men, I'd say) are reluctant to correct someone in front of a group, but that is exactly where you need to disagree and set the record straight.

More difficult to deal with is when the other person makes a decision or states an opinion, and you see a better or different way of doing something.  For example, your design team is working on a restaurant located on the corner of a four-lane street and a two lane street.  Jill wants to locate the service entrance and loading dock off the four-lane street.  However, Cody believes that locating it there will put an icky blot on a major street frontage, which should be reserved for the nicest-looking facade.  

Cody could be a jerk and curtly say, "NO.  That's gonna be nasty on the main street.  We gotta put it on the back side."  He'll be much better served if he says, "Hm, the thing about that is that now we have a not-so-pretty service entrance on a major street right where we want our nicest face to be.  However, if we put it on the other side, where this two-lane street is, we can save the facade and still have street access for the delivery trucks."

Now, it's Jill's turn to disagree without being disagreeable.  It's also her turn to stick up for herself if she really believes in what she's saying.  If she realizes that Cody is right, she can utter the two sweetest words in the English language, "You're right."  If not, she needs to present her side of the situation: "Well, you make a good point, Cody.  That is the major facade, and it's the place to make the building look good.  Problem is, the owner of this restaurant gets several deliveries a week from tractor trailer trucks, and those trucks will have a hard time making this curve and parking decently on this two-lane street.  However, big trucks can come right down this major street and either use the whole street width to back into a dock or only take up one of the two lanes going south while it unloads."

What if Cody didn't know how the owner gets his deliveries, but Jill did because she gets to go to client meetings and Cody doesn't?  Jill needs to share that in the interest of having the whole team on the same page, and Cody needs to accept that information without getting all offended that he wasn't at the meeting.  What if Cody is a better designer than Jill, which always leaves her feeling a bit jealous?  Cody needs to use his good design sense to make a better project, and Jill needs to acknowledge and use Cody's abilities and observations without brushing him off or allowing him to design at the expense of function.  As long as Jill and Cody are speaking to each other without hostility, this is a chance for them to work the bugs out of a design, make a great project, and disagree with each other without later branding each other with "what a jerk".  

Be very careful in writing and emails.  I cannot stress this enough.  When you need to disagree with something that has been written or stated elsewhere, be very careful with how you go about this.  Acknowledge that the other party has made an assertion, and acknowledge any amount of truth in it that you can.  Bear in mind that most people make assertions based on something they have learned through their experience, so they're not trying to be wrong (and they may not be wrong at all).  That's why acknowledging any truth that you can is so helpful--it shows the other party that you're trying to understand how they see this.  Then, make a statement of disagreement such as:
  • "Given that, we have yet to find any evidence to support/disprove..."
  • "In light of this, we have found..."
  • "However, it has been my/our experience that..."
  • "My/Our experience of this has been different."
  • "However, we think/believe...because of...."
  • "Regardless, it is our recommendation that we...because...."
  • "After reading your email, we felt some additonal research was necessary, so we called the state inspection board/went back through the 2006 IBC/shook our Magic 8-Ball, and found that..."
The final statement in that list is especially useful.  When you disagree on a factual point, have the resources to back you up handy, and send them along with your email.  This cuts short any back-and-forth between the parties and keeps the discussion moving forward.  Be sure that you frame your disagreement in such a way that it is in the service of the job.  You want to make sure everyone's on the same page, or you know that this contractor or enegineer does great work and you want to make sure that this one little thing doesn't trip them or the design team up on the project, etc.  

It may seem like we're doing a bit of fancy footwork and almost being extra nice to others, but that's hardly the point.  Think about it: do you like being told that you're wrong?  Do you relish someone verbally gut-punching you with "No, moron, that's not how we do that"?  And do you like being told that by someone who knows less than you or is way younger than you?  Then why should it be any different for how you treat others?  Remember that as an intern, you may be disagreeing with electricians who have been wiring buildings since you were in third grade.  You'll be challenging architects who are licensed, and you're not.  You may be telling a world-class brain surgeon what he has to have in his surgery center, whether he wants it or not.  Speaking a correction respectfully to others gets you much farther than just being right ever does.

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