Become Safe to Disagree With

Zack Marty
Zack MartyMonday, May 6, 2024
Become Safe to Disagree With

A treasured colleague recently told me, “I feel safe disagreeing with you.” I was touched insofar as someone told me that they felt safe with me, but what did it actually mean, how could I go about making sure that everyone felt that way with me, and how can I help foster an environment where more people feel safe disagreeing with their colleagues?

For those of us who don’t feel safe disagreeing with others, this blog is about helping you find a way to make sure your voice is heard in a safe way. For those who have no problem disagreeing with others, this blog is about how you can foster an environment that cherishes and recognizes healthy conflict.

What is healthy conflict?

In short, healthy conflict is just a constructive disagreement. It’s when people are able to disagree with each other, and each party listens intently to understand and value the alternate positions that people present. Such conflict in the workplace breeds creativity, personal development, and stronger bonds with your workmates. It’s not always easy to pull off, and it is something that you need to foster within yourself as well as others. Healthy conflict requires a strong ego from everyone involved.

Having a strong ego means that you can like and appreciate your own intellect while also understanding that others will have better ideas, and you need to internalize that disagreements are not a personal attack on your intellect. Sometimes your perspective comes from being in the weeds and theirs is from a more visionary standpoint. Sometimes their opinion comes from outside of the industry as a way to shake things up and yours comes from industry expertise. Either way, you likely both have good reasons to hold the opinions you have, and recognizing that will lead to healthier and more productive disagreements. This took a lot of practice, and quite a few hours of self-reflection after I failed to disagree in a healthy and safe way on more than one occasion.

How can I foster an environment of healthy conflict?

It's unrealistic to expect perfect agreement with colleagues every time. We all have off days where our responses may be less professional and our communication less effective than intended. When such situations arise, it's important to humble ourselves and offer apologies when warranted. Personally, I've found myself needing to apologize to my colleague Claire on more than one occasion.

While no one explicitly required me to do so, failing to apologize would likely strain our relationship, which is detrimental both personally and to the company as a whole. However, constantly finding oneself in a cycle of apologies isn't conducive to a healthy work environment. Therefore, as leaders and colleagues, it's vital to cultivate trust by honoring the commitments we make to one another.

These commitments are rarely spoken and are more often implied through our actions and general behavior. You can tell everyone who will listen that you can be trusted and that you value people’s input, but that doesn’t matter one iota if you routinely demonstrate that you are hostile toward critical input, never address your own shortcomings, and routinely break people’s trust. This all comes down to the simple idea that you need to treat people the way that you want to be treated.

So how do I actually start? Like this:

  • Listen to criticism actively and respond thoughtfully instead of waiting to speak. Engage with the feedback rather than just collecting it to defend your own opinion.
  • If you disagree with someone, jot down their points and reflect on them later. Emotions can cloud judgment, so taking time to process can reveal valid insights or the value in their perspective.
  • If you've already considered and rejected an idea, explain why it doesn't work rather than dismissing it outright. This fosters constructive dialogue and understanding.
  • Seek further clarification when needed. Asking for more detail demonstrates active listening and respect for others' perspectives. Make sure to do this often, especially when you understand 98% of what they said. That last 2% can make all the difference.

This is as lovely advice when you’re a leader/boss at your place of work or play, but how do we go about fostering a workplace of healthy conflict when we’re not the boss? And how do you make yourself heard?

Being Heard

The difficult truth is that you need to lead if you have not been given a platform to be heard. If this can’t be done where you are, then you might be in the wrong place, but let’s assume you’re somewhere with people willing to hear you. You can lead without being the boss, and fostering healthy conflict when you aren’t the boss is all about leading by example. There are numerous ways to do this without wielding power.

This can be done by connecting people to each other at your workplace, being a curious contrarian, or asking a lot of questions. The way I have been most effective at this is by peeling back the layers of decisions to understand the roots. When you are able to peel back layers, one method being the five why’s, people will notice your curiosity and investigative nature. Though we are all supposed to care about our work, passion can shine through.

Getting Started

In a meeting, attempting to pick apart the intricacies of a decision, especially if it's your first time doing so, can often prove more disruptive than beneficial. Try to initiate this process with a single individual, preferably someone with greater decision-making authority or influence than yourself, whether through their official position or their sway among peers. Despite everyone's crazy schedules, most people are willing to set aside time for a one-on-one discussion with a colleague.

Once you've got their time, begin unpacking the decision, asking probing questions, and getting into the specifics. Over time, as you engage in these discussions, they will naturally begin seeking your input. This gradual approach alleviates the pressure of suddenly voicing opinions in a meeting, which can be daunting for those inexperienced in such situations. Your consistent presence and contributions will become expected and valued by those you've engaged with individually, leading them to actively involve you rather than requiring you to assert yourself.


None of us are perfect, and not everyone wants to jump into the limelight. However, we all want to be heard, and we all want to hear from others. You can become easy to disagree with, and you can make it easier to disagree with others in a healthy way by starting with individuals and expanding from there. You will have to put yourself out there, and you need a strong sense of self to do it, but it gets a whole lot easier the more you do it.

Zack is a product strategist here at Echobind and would love to help you plan out the roadmap of your next big project. Let’s do this together; email us at anytime.

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