Business is a contact sport, and although confrontations can sometimes result in great ideas, it is of course almost always in your best interest to be civil, polite, and professional, even while you are butting heads; as they say, just because you're disagreeing doesn't mean you need to be disagreeable.
The push and pull of differing opinions can be fruitful, but in order for a disagreement to be productive, it needs to be handled properly so that no matter the outcome of the conflict, your business relationship remains strong.
Easier said than done, right?
And especially when your argument is virtual—a barrage of emails back and forth, each one less constructive than the last—a relatively mild disagreement can quickly devolve into ad hominem character attacks.
Arguments often seem less intense, less contentious, and easier to resolve in person. Without the help of body language and tone of voice, misunderstandings can escalate at the speed of, well, a click. There is no nuance with email.
We are much more likely to say something cutting or sarcastic, or to fire off a comment we would normally hold back, when we're each alone at our computer. No matter how you conduct yourself in your professional correspondence, inevitably you will get sucked into a heated email disagreement. Here are a few tips to help you navigate the situation.
Disagree With Ideas, Not With People
The single most important thing to keep in mind during a business disagreement: don't make it personal. When you tell a business contact, “You are wrong,” they are likely to take it as a personal attack. As soon as a conflict becomes personal, both parties lose. And as a solopreneur, your business partners are your lifelines to the larger world. That said, you depend on them almost as much as you would depend on an employee, and you cannot risk destroying a relationship just to prove, “I'm right, and you're wrong.”
You need to make the effort to show the other party that you are disagreeing with their idea and not with them. In business, you must be able to build and maintain relationships with people who hold different opinions, and if you cannot focus on the idea, if you insist on winning every argument, then you will end up being right… but alone.
So use language that emphasizes the idea and ignores the person it belongs to. Try not to say, “You are wrong,” but rather, “I believe that this won't work for reasons X, Y, and Z.”
Always Go for a Direct Approach
Too many timid business people back into arguments precisely because they are trying so hard to sidestep a disagreement. Don't be afraid of disagreements, they are natural and healthy. Instead, be direct and firm. Make sure that you understand the other party correctly and offer constructive criticism. If you're going to reject an idea, make sure that you explain why you're not convinced.
Build a Bridge to the Future
As soon as you sense that a disagreement is developing into a confrontation, inform the other party that, despite your differences of opinion, you sincerely hope that you will be able to continue doing business together. Explain to the other person that you are only trying to do what is best for your business. Chances are the will understand.
And never keep an argument going longer than you absolutely have to. If you are truly right and argue only the validity of your ideas, then the other person will hopefully acknowledge this of their own free will.
Now on to your next task… being a gracious winner.