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How to Successfully Disagree With Colleagues, Clients

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

When you work with others, conflict is inevitable. That's true whether you're working with co-counsel, support staff, or just a difficult client.

How you address these disagreements can be the difference between a productive relationship and completely dysfunctional one. Even in the adversarial world of the legal system, there's plenty of truth behind the old saying "you can disagree without being disagreeable." Here's how.

1. Pay Attention to Tone and Body Language

Sometimes style is more important than substance. In fact, it often is. A 2012 study of executives' speeches found that the sound of a speaker's voice was twice as important as the content of their speech when it came to earning positive feedback.

So when you're in a disagreement, remember to keep your tone agreeable. That usually means talking slowly, calmly, without raising your voice. Make sure your body language mirrors your tone by keeping your arms uncrossed, your posture open, and maintaining eye contact.

2. Avoid Putting Others on the Defensive

You need whomever your disagreeing with to be receptive. An easy way to keep others from responding defensively is to avoid "you" statements when talking about behavior or feelings. Instead of telling a colleague something like "you've been consistently late on getting me these drafts," consider statements such as "I notice there's been some difficulty getting drafts in on time. Perhaps we can discuss new strategies?"

3. Avoid Personal Attacks

And of course, try not to go ad hominem. Even if you really, really, really want to scream "Dammit, Paul, I can't deal with your stupidity and incompetence for another minute!" don't do it.

Personal attacks don't change anyone's attitude or actions for the better and those who make them end up looking terrible. Keep it professional.

4. Be Prepared

If you're disagreeing about something significant like case strategy, firm business, even proper compensation, make sure you do your research beforehand. Let's say a client is reluctant to settle a case that you think wouldn't be wise to take to trial. Instead of just saying what you think could happen if they followed your advice or not, start your discussion with data, such as similar cases and outcome to make your advice more convincing.

5. Know Your Alternatives Beforehand

What's going to happen if you don't get what you want? Before you go in to a disagreement with guns blazing, know what your best alternatives are should you fail to persuade. Do you sever a relationship? Keep on with the status quo? Find some compromise? Make sure you can answer this beforehand, so you can know how hard to fight for your position.

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