Wise leaders understand that a free exchange of ideas is invaluable, as it often leads to more innovative solutions. If your boss says you should always feel free to challenge her ideas, what is the best way to offer an opinion that runs contrary to hers?
Even with express permission to do so, countering a leader’s ideas with opposing viewpoints can still feel like a daunting task. While you want to make your point in the most convincing way, you don’t want to it to come across as disrespectful or argumentative.
Fortunately, there are tactful and effective ways of offering a counterpoint or a differing opinion that your boss will appreciate. To help, members of Forbes Coaches Council share 15 of their top tips for doing so below.
It is always a good idea to get curious. If you acknowledge your leader’s idea as one option, you can follow that with, “I’m wondering what would happen if X…” Avoid pushing right up against the leader’s idea because that will leave them in a defensive posture, and then it becomes about being right. Asking questions invites them into problem-solving with you and will keep emotions tempered. – Cindy Barber, The Dash Group
No one likes surprises at work, including your boss. I’d recommend bringing “hints” to the table, including data and white papers (from reputable sources) that recommend a different path. See what the leader’s reaction is, and if it seems amenable, set up a conversation to discuss it further. Be prepared with a short slide deck, data and sources to show how this will impact the business positively. – Lauren Cooney, Spark Labs
Challenging the conclusions of a superior or more senior team member with another conclusion can be risky. Challenging a point of view with a powerful question that provokes a new or deeper insight, or which reveals a hole or a flaw in reasoning, can generate new possibilities not yet seen. You will be regarded as a high-value ally, not an adversary, and that can make all the difference. – April Armstrong, AHA Insight
Use language that is inclusive and not accusatory or negative toward them. Ask questions such as, “Have you considered X?” “Mind if I offer a totally different idea?” or even, “This may not work, or it might be off the wall, but what about X?” If you are going to say “no” to an idea, always have a counter idea to offer. Never run into a burning building yelling “fire” without bringing a hose. – Jen Croneberger, JLynne Consulting Group
Whenever presenting an innovative idea to your leader, always open by aligning it with the vision and mission of their goals, using data to support your given idea. An opinion that is matured through data, alignment and effective communication has a better chance of being well-received and considered. – Bree Luther, Inspired Science Coaching
Check in directly with the leader and ask how they would like to be challenged. First, this gives you an opportunity to make sure that they are actually on board with this practice versus giving lip service to the idea. Second, gathering intelligence about how the leader would like to be challenged (i.e., in which settings and under which conditions) will set you up for success as you rise to challenge. – Palena Neale, Ph.D, unabridged
Let them know that you have a differing opinion or idea. Disagreement does not mean that you are rejecting the person; you see different possibilities. Gather facts and information to support your position. Explain your idea. Share the vision and results. Be persuasive in sharing benefits. A solidly explained idea will be entertained. – Debra Kasowski, Debra Kasowski International
Don’t be shy. Just do it. Offer your opinion, but back it up with data. Build the business case. Tell the story of how and why your idea is better and what the outcomes will be if you go with your idea. It may actually be something the leader never even thought of. One last thought: Know your audience—in other words, know the best way to communicate the concept so that it will come across as constructive. – Annette Franz, CX Journey Inc.
The key to offering a differing opinion is leading from the desire to reach a mutually beneficial outcome (no winners or losers here). Behavior hacks that can convey that message include: confidently yet respectfully making eye contact (if culturally appropriate), using “I” statements rather than saying “you” (so that they’re not put on the defensive) and indicating that you’ve listened intently by asking clarifying questions to avoid assumptions. – Mark Batson Baril, Resologics
Start by acknowledging the leader’s idea, and then build on it. Acknowledging the idea doesn’t mean that you agree with it. Acknowledge that you understand by saying, “I hear your proposed solution, and…” Inserting the word “and” instead of “but” will let the leader know that you are adding to their idea rather than tearing it down. After “and,” feel free to introduce your own idea. – Kirsten Meneghello, Illumination Coaching LLC
A way to disagree with your leader is to communicate that your intent isn’t to threaten their interests but to offer a different view, and that you respect their position. This will keep them feeling secure and prevent them from getting defensive as you share your ideas. Taking this approach will ensure that your leader does not mistake your dissent for disrespect, allowing for more productive conversations. – Jonathan Silk, Bridge 3 LLC
If it’s the right time and place to offer a contrarian view to your leader, your self-awareness is the first key. You can challenge any idea as long as it is done with courage, respect and open-mindedness and is not driven by ego-centered behavior. The caveat to remember is to beware if it’s a highly toxic or political environment, as your candidness can backfire and damage you in ways you cannot imagine. – Jon Michail, Image Group International
Acknowledge the good in the idea and build on it. Any idea is made up of many parts. Some of them you might not agree with, but other parts might align with your thinking. So first, find the common ground. Perhaps the percent of the discount is valid, but the timing is off. Or maybe the process is sound, but the staff will need retraining. Then, support your opinion with evidence and clear business benefits. – Gabriella Goddard, Brainsparker Leadership Academy
I am currently working with a leader who wants his team members to “challenge” him, yet they are not really doing it at the level he wants. I would suggest starting by asking, “May I challenge your thoughts on that?” or, “That is one idea/thought; may I share another?” When we ask to share, it breaks the ice and may make it easier to share your idea and have it received. – Michelle Braden, MSBCoach, LLC
Make sure that you speak loudly and clearly enough and with a confident tone. Take time to formulate your thoughts. Quiet people are often listened to half-heartedly not because they speak too softly but because their whole posture expresses that they are probably not worth hearing anyway. Self-confidence is good; a loud and bossy demeanor is not. – Cristian Hofmann, Empowering Executives | SUPERGROUP LTD