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How to disagree without being disagreeable


Your flight has been cancelled.

I walked up to the counter, having seen the desk agent get yelled at for 20 minutes straight.

Sure, we were all unhappy that a flight had been cancelled. Boston to San Francisco is not a short flight and the plane wasn’t empty. So a lot of people were mad about having to find alternatives.

I just said “thank you.” That’s it. Slowly. Quietly. After all, it wasn’t her fault. In fact, when we first got to the desk, she hadn’t even heard the news.

But that didn’t stop someone from not only being angry but from taking it out on the agent. Yelling. Being abusive. Talking smack. Call it what you will – I call it embarrassing (for them).

She looked up, harried, and told me she’d be with me in a second. But I told her to take her time. I was in no rush. After all, my plane wasn’t coming for me anymore.

When she was ready, I thanked her again. Then I was explicit about what I needed. Not what I thought. Not how I felt. But specifically what I needed – in my case, an alternate way to get to San Diego. I was polite. But I was clear. I defined success.

And then I stopped talking. She had what she needed, to let her work, and my continued talking would have made things worse, not better. So I shut up and backed up.

I’m not much for Support

There’s a good reason why I’m not in software support. While I may be able to muster up some empathy in the right business context, doing it when someone is consistently being rude and sarcastic isn’t one of my strengths.

That said, it does make me wonder what kind of people wake up in the morning and say, “today, I’m excited to help people, even when they’re disagreeable.” Pippin is one of those guys – and he has such respect from me. Jason Coleman is another. Daniel Espinoza is another. So is Shawn Hesketh. My list could go on.

But my point is that while I can fully comprehend someone disagreeing with me (I am wrong a lot), I don’t get why someone thinks being disagreeable will help them – in any way.

Learning to Disagree without being Disagreeable

The other day WooThemes wrote about a change in their pricing and their terms. I gotta be honest, it didn’t bother me. Not because I didn’t care about the change in terms or the added cost. It didn’t bother me because I had predicted it would happen months ago. I just couldn’t see how they could scale support when WooCommerce had taken off so incredibly. And as I saw them hire more and more friends to help them, I started doing math.

So I wrote about it, particularly about the notion of “grandfathering” which people on the web have grown accustomed to. And then comments started coming in.

Some asked questions. Others gave their opinions. And then others started getting out of hand – including one guy who went from disagreeing to being disagreeable.

And that’s when I closed down the comments – because the amount of energy I was expending on restraint, on my own blog, was more than I wanted to handle. So the decision was simple.

3 Effective Ways to Disagree

So the next time you think about posting a comment on a blog, discussing things with your friends, or debating with someone you don’t know, here are three effective ways to disagree without being disagreeable.

Listen closely and stay on topic It’s easy, when debating, to leave the topic and create a new topic as you go along. This is because staying on topic is difficult. It’s easier to randomly pick another angle to “shoot” from. Resist and pay close attention so that you’re adding to a discussion that someone might read over later and really appreciate.

Don’t repeat, and don’t go personal Whatever you do, focus on the issue at hand, rather than attacking the person who you disagree with. Disagreements end, but if you’ve attacked a person, it’s likely the animosity between you two won’t.

Additionally, unless the person you’re disagreeing with has really short-term memory (like Memento), repeating yourself doesn’t help you. It just makes you look like someone who wasn’t listening.

Find and emphasize the places where you agree No one wants to interact with someone who is not only a broken record but also unable to find things to agree on. It’s easy to be at odds with someone. It’s harder but more worth it when you can start by finding the points you do agree with and emphasize those. Then it’s only a few points of disagreement in a sea of agreement.

My Flight Home

So there I was at the counter. I was calm. I didn’t repeat myself. I never went personal – in fact I did the opposite (complimenting her in the midst of clearly a trying time). I was clear about how she could help me, and I stayed focused.

I wish I could tell you they decided to bring in another plane to do the very same flight. But they didn’t. We were suddenly on flights that weren’t non-stop.

But she liked me. And in sharp contrast to the person who’d just been so disagreeable, I did go home with something. In our case, it was first class upgrades all the way home.

So if you were at the Boston airport flying to SFO last summer and got all frustrated at the United gal after having a flight cancelled – thank you! Your disagreeable self really helped me out.

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