How Compassionate Directness Can Help Us Disagree Constructively at Work

Your words matter, but how you say them is just as important.

PeopleImages / Getty Images
PeopleImages / Getty Images

Think about the last time you had a disagreement with a colleague. Did the interaction stay amicable throughout, or did things get heated? Did you come to a productive resolution or a standstill? These questions describe the difference between a debate and an argument — two types of conflict that have radically different outcomes in the workplace, research suggests. 

In a debate, our ideas and perspectives are constantly evolving in response to what the other person is saying, Kristin Behfar, Ph.D., a professor of strategic leadership and ethics at the United States Army War College, tells Thrive. But “once people start defending their point of view, rather than listening to one another for ways to integrate ideas,” that’s when the debate turns into an argument. And whereas debates are conducive to development and problem-solving, arguments feed stress levels and erode trust between colleagues, alienating our conversation partners and leaving us further from a resolution.

If you notice your disagreement taking a turn for the negative, try these three compassionately direct communication tips to avoid an argument, and to build deeper, more productive connections with your co-workers. 

Be direct — but moderate your intensity

To keep your disagreement from veering off-course into a divisive argument, be mindful of your emotional intensity. Low intensity is demonstrated by calmness, flexibility, and openness to considering contrary viewpoints, which is especially helpful in keeping the focus on the ideas at hand and finding a resolution that works for all parties involved. If you notice you’re feeling a rush of strong, negative emotions, Behfar suggests letting your teammates know. Being direct with them about how you’re feeling helps depersonalize what might be perceived as an attack. A compassionate filter is critical not only for keeping the focus on the contents of what you’re saying in the moment, but for preserving the relationships you need to truly shine at work. 

Solve the problem step-by-step 

Heated arguments can get very personal very fast, so one helpful way to de-escalate a disagreement is to adopt a problem-solving mindset, and encourage your teammates to “focus on problems, not people,” Behfar says. Breaking down the problem into component parts and smaller goals can help you course-correct and arrive at a productive outcome that everyone can support. 

Know when to let things cool down 

Compassionate directness can become easier with practice, but Behfar’s work reveals one noteworthy situation in which it’s smarter to hold your tongue a bit and put on the brakes. When tensions around you are already very high, saying exactly what’s on your mind could further fuel the flames. She suggests holding your thoughts for after everyone has some time to cool off and return to the discussion on a more even playing field. 

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