Disagreeing agreeably: An essential skill in the Canadian workplace

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There is no progress in a workplace where everybody agrees, and nobody disagrees. As American writer Walter Lippmann said, “Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.” But in the Canadian workplace, where respect and diplomacy are highly valued, disagreeing can sometimes be problematic. Whether you are objecting to something, pointing out an error, or trying to argue a point, how do you disagree without offending anyone?

“Communication (in Canada) is indirect and much effort is spent on “softening the language”.

How people disagree in other cultures

Different cultures deal with disagreement differently. Some see it objectively, even in a positive light. For example, French and Germans believe in the value of open debate to generate truth. They don’t see disagreements as disrespectful but rather “being honest and transparent” (The secret to disagreeing with people from 20 different countries in one chart, Ana Swanson, The Washington Post). On the other end of the spectrum are people from Southeast Asian cultures who may see disagreement as a personal affront. They may take disagreement personally. Meanwhile, in Canada, disagreement is accepted but everything depends on the delivery. Communication is indirect and much effort is spent on “softening the language.”

As newcomers, why do we need to know these differences? Mainly because in Canada, most of us work in multicultural environments. Being aware of these cultural differences helps us navigate this specific aspect of communication more effectively and mindfully. It helps us understand others, prevent misunderstandings and equips us to choose which communication strategies are effective to adapt in the workplace.

Lionel Laroche-Cross Cultural Feedback: Message sent vs message received

How to disagree politely in the Canadian workplace:

Regardless of where you came from and how you view disagreement, it’s important to adjust how you communicate and adapt to what is acceptable in the Canadian workplace. Here are a few tips:

  1. Keep calm

    Before you say anything, remember to stay calm. This will help you speak in a non-aggressive and respectful tone.

  2. Be professional

    Don’t raise your voice even if it is something you are passionate about. Never use insults or sarcasm. Be mature and try not to make a big deal out of it.

  3. Mirror other people’s communication style

    Canadians will never say outright that “You are wrong!” or “I disagree with you.” Three ways they will disagree:

    • Show that they understand the other person’s opinion
      Sample phrases:
    • “I understand where you are coming from, but I think…”
      “Hmmn, that’s interesting. But the way I see it…”
      “I see, but in my opinion …”
      “I see your point of view, but…”
      “That’s a fair point, but …”

    • Start with an apology
      Sample phrases:
    • “I’m sorry, but I have to disagree with you on . . .”
      “I’m sorry, but I respectfully (or beg to) disagree.”

    • Pretend they’re not sure
      Sample phrases:
    • “I’m not sure I agree with that. I think . . .”
      “Maybe I’m wrong, but …”

  4. Offer an alternative solution

    Soften the argument by offering a solution or suggestion. You can say: “If you ask me, I think we should…” or “What do you think about doing _____ instead?”

  5. Separate the issue from the person

    Remember that you are disagreeing with a statement or an idea not the person. Be able to maintain a harmonious relationship with them and don’t harbor resentment after the discussion.

  6. Accept differences

    If things don’t work out and nobody agrees on anything, try to end on an amicable note. You can say “Let’s agree to disagree on this”.

Learn more useful phrases from this video from Jennifer ESL:

Sources: The most productive ways to disagree across cultures, Erin Meyer, INSEAD; The secret to disagreeing with people from 20 different countries in one chart, Ana Swanson, The Washington Post; Five useful ways to disagree politely in English, English Live; and Learn English with Bob the Canadian, Part 3: How to disagree politely, YouTube. Accessed June 6, 2019.

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