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  1. Blog
  2. Culture & Professionalism
  3. July 2, 2024

Disagreeing with Empathy: Navigating Conflicts with More Understanding & Less Compromising

The customer isn’t always right

Two coworkers disagreeing
Photo courtesy of Antoni Shkraba

Disagreement can be unsettling but it can also be healthy—especially if you’re prepared to approach the disagreement with empathy.

Talking about empathy at work has become more popular, especially since workplace stress has been on the rise. Eighty-three percent of U.S. employees have reported experiencing work-related stress, making people more aware of how others might be feeling. However, showing empathy at work is often mistaken for giving in to avoid conflict.

Empathy is about honoring another person’s point of view. “By definition, empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes,” says Dr. Sabrina Scott-Lorestil, an experienced mental health professional and psychology professor at Virginia State University. “Having the skill to think of others and connect with them in place of shared feelings is very important for the workplace. Mainly because empathy allows for enhanced communication, which in turn helps with conflict resolution.”

Still, practicing empathy at work can be challenging and does not always come naturally. Luckily, it doesn’t have to. “Empathy can be learned as it is a skill that has to be practiced over and over again,“ says Scott-Lorestil. When done correctly, disagreeing with empathy can benefit you by:

  • Reducing stress associated with unresolved conflict

  • Helping to preserve professional relationships

  • Uncovering new ways to build consensus

  • Encouraging women to be their authentic selves at work

6 ways to practice empathy while disagreeing

1. Make mindfulness a habit

The American Psychology Association defines mindfulness as observing your thoughts and emotions without reacting to them. Be more mindful by noting your feelings and what triggers them. Check in with yourself regularly so that you can better understand your own feelings and other people’s feelings.  

2. Gain clarity

Disagreements at work can escalate if you’re not clear on the other person’s stance. Before making any conclusions, understand what the issue is and what the other person is proposing. Then, make an informed decision about how to respond. For instance:

“It seems like you disagree with the plan I proposed. I want to make sure I understand before we move forward. What exactly do you disagree with and what changes are you proposing we make?”

3. Pay attention to nonverbal cues

Today’s workforce is largely driven by virtual interactions but you can still recognize nonverbal cues and body language. If someone at work disagrees with you, either virtually or in person, you may notice them: 

  • Cross their arms

  • Avoid eye contact

  • Frown or furrow their eyebrows

Being empathetic means that you observe the nonverbal cues and respond appropriately. “Women can best learn to handle conflict at work by using statements that allow colleagues the opportunity to define their discomfort.” This type of response can help achieve that:   

“You’ve raised some good points so I will consider them. Am I missing anything? Is there anything else you’d like to share with me?” 

4. Ask questions

Ask questions to understand the other person’s position and demonstrate a genuine interest in their perspective—here are some examples:

  • How can I help you feel heard in this process?

  • What would you need to feel confident in moving forward?

  • What outcome are you hoping for?

5. Create boundaries  

Establish clear boundaries for how you want to be treated. “Having boundaries for yourself or disagreeing with others does not mean you aren’t empathetic. It means you are an individual with your own world experience. Empathy is a tool that allows people to relate and help others to feel understood. It is not giving others their way and negating your own wants and needs.” 

Scott-Lorestil suggests using “I” statements. “For example, ‘I understand that you are not in agreement with the team's majority decision. I think it's important we honor our process of majority rules, but I also think you should voice your concerns so others are aware.’ This is the practice of validating a person while also maintaining the boundary of ‘no, we are not going with what you want.’

6. Be firm in your stance

Sometimes, you will practice these strategies and still fail to reach an agreement. “I think it's important for women to understand that some problems do not have solutions,” Scott-Lorestil explains. “Agreeing to disagree is a thing.” Consider using language like this:

“I appreciate you hearing me out and I’m glad I got to hear your side as well. However, my stance remains the same.”  

“I love your idea but I don’t feel it’s a good fit for this project. Let’s stick with the plan I proposed and save your idea for a future project.” 

“I’d like to incorporate the agile approach, as you suggested. But I am not willing to change the other aspects of the project.” 

Even when you cannot reach an agreement, you should be empathetic yet firm. “You can respect and accept a colleague for who they are, validate their feelings, and still disagree with them.” If someone is not receptive to your position on the issue, that does not mean you were wrong to disagree. Some disagreements go unsolved but handling the matter with empathy allows you to remain cordial and professional. 

Common work scenarios that require empathy with disagreement 

Someone wants to take credit for your work

Getting credit for your work is important but 37 percent of women have reported that a coworker got credit instead. If someone you work with thinks they should take credit for your work, make it clear that you disagree as soon as the issue comes up. Be brief, clear, and firm in your response:   

“I take pride in my work, so getting credit for it is important. I’m not willing to bend on this.”

You have creative differences

Creative differences happen when you disagree about the artistic aspect of a project or task. Let’s say you and your coworker disagree about the best software to use for a product design. You can acknowledge their opinion, restate your own, and suggest the next step. 

“I can understand why you’d like to use that software; it has a lot of great features. The one I suggested is more dynamic and provides the flexibility we need for prototyping. Let’s plan to start with my software, then transition to yours after we’ve gotten the prototype approved.”

You disagree about remote work 

According to the Texas Conference for Women survey, 65.4 percent of women want to work remotely sometimes while 43 percent want to work remotely all the time. Navigating this type of disagreement can be tricky, especially as many employers have become inflexible about remote and hybrid work. You still have the right to share your view and advocate for yourself. Here’s how you might respond initially:

“I’ve proven that I can remain productive while working from home and have explained why having that flexibility has actually improved my performance. Can you please share what specific concerns you have?”

From there, you should hear them out and acknowledge their response. If they push back, you can respond like this:

“I appreciate your insight. I really enjoy my job and love being a part of this team. However, remote work is necessary for me to thrive in my role. How can I ease your concerns to maintain my remote work agreement?”

If you two cannot agree, you will need to decide whether to work onsite, negotiate, or find a new job opportunity.  

You disagree about moving to another team

Some companies require you to get your manager’s approval to join a new team. If your manager disagrees with you making the switch, prepare to disagree with empathy. You may even need to involve a neutral party to achieve a resolution. 

“I appreciate how much you value having me on your team—I’ve learned a lot here! However, now that I’ve contributed to this team for the past five years, I’m ready for a new challenge on a new team. Should we get HR to help us mediate the situation?”

Whatever the nature of your disagreement, Scott-Lorestill says that using statements like “I can only imagine how difficult this must be for you”’ or “I hear you, and I want to understand how you’re feeling” can offer “validation and acknowledgment that demonstrates empathy.”

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