Disagreeing agreeably: An essential skill in the Canadian workplace

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How to disagree at work

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.”

Objecting, pointing out an error, or arguing a point are necessary to improve work. In the Canadian workplace where politeness is a priority, how do you disagree without offending anyone?

How people disagree in other cultures

Different cultures deal with disagreement differently.

  1. French and Germans welcome disagreement. It is “being honest and transparent”.
    (The secret to disagreeing with people from 20 different countries in one chart, Ana Swanson, The Washington Post).
  2. People from Southeast Asian cultures may take it personally. They don’t like disagreements.
  3. Disagreement is ok in Canada but do it respectfully. Communication is indirect and you have to soften your language.

Why do we need to know these differences?

  • We work in multicultural environments.
  • It will help us to be more mindful when we communicate.
  • It helps us understand others, prevent misunderstandings, and helps us choose the most effective way to communicate in the workplace.

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

How to disagree politely in the Canadian workplace:

  1. Stay calm

    You will speak better when you are calm. You will have a respectful tone.

  2. Be professional

    Don’t use insults or sarcasm.

  3. Copy other people’s communication style

    Canadians will never say, “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 another solution

    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

    Disagree with a statement or an idea, not the person. Maintain a good relationship with your co-workers. Don’t resent them after the discussion.

  6. Accept differences

    Say “let’s agree to disagree on this” if you can’t come up with an agreement.

Learn more useful phrases from this video from Jennifer ESL:

Article updated October 5, 2021.
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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