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 difficult. Whether you are objecting to something, pointing out an error, or trying to argue a point, how do you do it 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 in various ways. Some see it objectively, like the French and Germans who 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). On the other end of the spectrum are Southeast Asian cultures who are offended by disagreement. They take it as a personal affront. In Canada, disagreement is accepted as long as it is done tactfully. Communication is indirect and much effort is spent on “softening the language.”

Why do we need to know these differences as newcomers? Well, because most of us work in multicultural environments. Being aware of cultural differences will help us navigate this aspect of communication more effectively. Understanding differences can lead to better and more effective communication strategies.

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

How to disagree politely in the Canadian workplace:

  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 the topic is something you are passionate about. Always stick to the issue and never use insults or sarcasm. Do your best to be objective.

  3. Mirror other people’s communication style

    Most Canadians will never say outright that “You are wrong!” or “I disagree with you.” They will disagree by:

    • Showing 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 …”

    • Starting 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.”

    • Say 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. Make it possible 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:

Article updated November 15, 2023.
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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