how to disagree with your boss in a meeting

A reader writes:

I have a question about respectfully disagreeing with your boss in meetings. My boss is director of communications for the hospital, but I serve as the spokesperson for media during crises. When something happens, all the leaders, including my boss and me, will meet to make a plan of action.

It’s not often I disagree with my boss, but sometimes I do. I am not so conceited that I think I am always right, but I think it is valuable for my senior leaders to know that there are other approaches to crisis communications. Part of my position description notes I should be advising senior leaders, and I want to make sure they know I am available to advise!

The last time I disagreed with her, I think I was too emotional (because I knew I would be on the on-the-record spokesperson), and I fear I came off insubordinate. It caused a little tension between us. I apologized for disagreeing and we moved on, but how can I offer another opinion in these meetings? Is it as simple as saying, “To offer another opinion, blah blah blah.” Do I say my opinion and then shut my mouth? Or, do I wait until after these meetings? I just fear that plans of action are put into place during the meetings, so to wait until after may be too late to change the course of action.

All the advice that follows assumes that you have a boss who’s open to input. If you don’t, all bets are off — but most people do have managers who are open to hearing opinions other than their own. (And good managers actively want to hear different perspectives because they want to get to the best solution.)

With that caveat in place, here are the keys to disagreeing with your boss in a meeting:

First, good framing for disagreeing without being confrontational (with anyone, really, not just your boss) is:
* “If we went in that direction, I’d worry about X.”
* “Another way to look at it is X.”
* “My take was a little different. I thought X.”
* “Is it worth considering X?”

Second, keep emotions and ego out of it. It sounds like this is what caused the tension last time — you got emotional about it. That’s not to say that you can never have strong feelings about something, but if you find yourself coming across as emotional, that might be a flag that you should be talking to your boss privately, not in the front of the whole group. In part, that’s because emotionally disagreeing with your boss in front of a whole meeting can put everyone there in an awkward spot.

Keeping your ego out of it also means grounding your argument in why what you’re saying makes sense for the organization, not just your own preferences, and taking the time to explain the assumptions underlying your argument (since they might not be as clear you think they are, especially if your boss has reached a different conclusion than you have).

In general, the more you can sound like a consultant — someone who’s not emotionally invested, just giving advice in a collaborative, problem-solving way — the better it’s probably going to go.

And last, know when to stop pushing it since it’s your boss’s prerogative to make the final call. If you share your input and she’s not convinced, sometimes you can try a second time if there’s new information to add (“in case it influences your thinking, one additional thing to throw in there to consider is…”), but after that you generally need to accept that she’s heard you out but made a different decision.

{ 39 comments… read them below }

  1. Sharon*

    Also, since the OP describes her situation as meeting with leaders to develop a plan of action prior to speaking to the media, another approach she can take is to meet with her boss FIRST. That way she and her manager can get aligned in private and then have a united front with the leaders and then the media.

    1. An Account Executive*

      I feel you, but in active crisis situations that’s not always possible. A lot of the time you’ll have journalists who are planning to run the story – with or without an official statement.

      1. Bunny*

        Reporter here. And yes, I’m always planning to run the story. If I don’t get comment from you, I’ll get it from someone else.

        It consistently amazes me (and I’m not talking about you here, OP, but in general) but often communications pros do not have news experience, or, if they do, last touched the business 25 years ago; and who insist on being reactive rather than proactive in crisis situations. You have plan for a crisis and create a map. And organizations don’t.

        OK rant over.

        1. Jen*

          Hah, communications person here with roughly a decade of experience in media relations. Greetings, opponent! ;)

          1. Bunny*

            Oh, most of the time we’re not! Some of my favorite people are in media relations!

            I would like to apologize for bad TV reporters.

      1. Mookie*

        Yes (no “and”)! I’ve used this approach a few times since that podcast and in a wide variety of settings. Never fails to work better than a “yeah, but” and it ensures interlocutors feel they’ve been heard even if we’re in a disagreement.

  2. The Cosmic Avenger*

    You have to analyze the issue, really pick it apart intellectually, rather than being invested in one approach. And back it up.

    For example, “Well, I’m concerned that if we say that our teapots are green, some people will think that they are made of cabbage and they will never give them a chance. Is there something we can do to allay those concerns, because I have seen a lot of case studies of people avoiding cabbage-based kitchen appliances? Or is that something that we have just decided that we are really not going to worry about?”

    The phrasing is awkward, but notice that it identifies the specific concern, backs it up, and allows for dissent. Those are important points to cover when trying to reach a consensus.

    1. Elise*

      My boss generally wants to hear disagreement so I don’t soften it with her (thought I am of course respectful in my delivery), but with some cross-departmental teams that I work with/lead, I will start with “You may have already considered this, but…” To me, it is a good way for the group to see that I’m not emotionally invested in the dissent because I’m already giving them the out of having already considered it. And many times they have. “Yes, we discussed the cabbage issue and decided that adding a mint leaf to the package would satisfactorily indicate the flavor of the teapot.”

  3. animaniactoo*

    Also “Have you taken into account how X may be seen/reacted to if we do Y?” “I think you may be underestimating how strongly people feel about X, based on the feedback I’ve gotten when… [something official as part of your duties]”

    What you’re doing is advising key factors that maybe you haven’t been clear enough about before – or if you have, you’re getting it out there in public in the meeting that you think it’s a concern to see if others see it as a big deal also which might sway your boss, and asking if she’s factored those into her thinking. Doing it that way allows her to do a number of things from changing stance without any potential loss of face, to claiming that she has thought of it and doesn’t consider it a priority without further explanation, to explaining her thinking in prioritizing the other message despite those concerns. You’re giving her the opening to give you feedback/instructions based on your concerns vs simply countering and disagreeing with her.

  4. Bibliovore*

    I have had success in meetings like this prefacing with:
    I understand what you are saying but I have a concern about unintended consequences of this statement…
    stakeholders X,Y, and Z have reacted violently to this language in the past.

  5. NW Mossy*

    OP, you mentioned that one of the reasons you got emotional is “because I knew I would be on the on-the-record spokesperson.” I assume that’s because you’re concerned that the audience will see you as the source/reason for some negative result and blame you for it. Shoot-the-messenger risk is real, and I can understand your desire to mitigate that if you can. On some level, it’s part and parcel of your gig and you’ll never get rid of it, but you can call attention to the limitations of that approach when you’re preparing.

    A common problem is not having the authority to do anything about the negative feedback you receive when delivering a message. Instead of shouldering that as your burden alone, identify who can do something about the feedback and say “I know we’re likely to get some strong opinions about this one. Fergus, since this is your area, I’m going to funnel the feedback to you so that you can assess it and determine how we should respond.” Similarly, if you know you’ll need support from higher up to reinforce something you’re saying, you can set the stage for that with “I expect that you’ll hear feedback from people who disagree with the message and hope that you’ll say something different if they come to you directly. Can we talk about how we can all send the same message consistently?”

    1. Artemesia*

      Great advice. I hadn’t fully grasped that in the OP’s initial question. If you are in a setting where stakeholders will do end runs then having this framed in terms of consistent message and thus predicting where the push back will come from is a graceful way to scope out unintended consequences in the group.

  6. TotesMaGoats*

    Literally just happened to me. Boss asked my opinion on rollout timeline of X. Then said no we aren’t going to do that. Even though I’m the SME on rolling out X and my butt is on the line for the success of X. Going to completely ignore me on that? Ok. My response is and will always be a polite, “Ok. If that’s the decision. I’ll move forward.” But as blank and unexcited as possible. Old Bosses knew that if I ever said that to them I thought they were being idiots but I would be obedient. I doubt that helps you. Do what Alison said.

    I’m still irritated at my boss because she said that my type of master’s degree isn’t as important as a certain type of doctoral degree when the skills learned in both and executed in the field are the same.

    1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      Ugh, your Boss sounds super annoying. Would it be helpful, next time she asks your opinion, to ask her what kind of input she’s looking for? I know this requires a boss who is self-aware (which may not be the case, here), but I’ve found it can circumvent nonsense.

      I had a boss who would call all-day department meetings where she would ask us what we thought about a specific policy or hire. I think she thought she was creating buy-in, except she almost always did the exact opposite of what we had advised (and did it without explanation, told us she’d done it after the fact, and made those decisions after months of delay). It made all of us feel like she was wasting our time, and frankly, we would have preferred that she just told us she was going to make a unilateral decision so that we could move on. The next time she tried doing this, we (diplomatically) asked her what she was looking for when she asked for our input, and it helped us avoid more all-day frustration fests.

  7. Nea*

    My go-to is a variant of the first option: “I’m concerned about X if we do Y, because…” The “because” is very important – it’s taking emotions out of it and focusing on impact to the task.

  8. Cobol*

    I’m not going to add phrasing, because there’s been some great suggestions, but I’d recommend meeting with your boss before hand. She may be great work feedback, but when it’s in front of senior leaders it can be hard to not take something as undermining. I’ve had luck with framing my disagreement as an agreement (“I like that, we can also do blah, blah, blah on top of that.”)

  9. Cambridge Comma*

    I think OP’s situation is more challenging than the average owing to the time pressure, the need to face the media herself and the context (the kind of crises that a hospital would need to give a press conference over).
    I wonder if OP could come to see her duties as spokesperson as acting a certain part, rather than representing herself. Perhaps this might help if she’s asked to speak for a point of view that she doesn’t agree with.
    (I’m mostly thinking of CJ on the West Wing here, so I don’t know if that’s helpful.)

  10. I'm Not Phyllis*

    I’d also say that that it might be best to meet with your boss before the meeting, if at all possible (even if it’s briefly), to make sure that you give him/her your advice and make sure that you’re on the same page before the meeting even begins. I realize that may not be possible if you’re dealing with an immediate crisis, though.

  11. Alice*

    A related question — as you gain more experience/local knowledge/relationships with stakeholders, how do you shift your relationship from implementing decisions to influencing them?
    I’m lucky that my boss explicitly invites ideas, even from relatively junior people, but in various other working contexts I’m having trouble transitioning from “listen and learn” mode to “here’s some more context you should know about before you take that decision” mode.

    1. LBK*

      I think the best way to do this is make sure you’re asking really good questions in the “listen and learn” phase and contributing good ideas when you can. You want to establish a pattern that any time you speak up, it’s something worthwhile, so that way people will be more inclined to let you speak up in the future. If you’re unsure about whether a question is relevant or an idea will be well-received, write those down and save them for a separate conversation.

      I’m sure we can all think of a coworker who always asks questions that make it clear they have no clue what’s going on or who brings up tangential issues that would be better discussed offline after the meeting – those are the people who can’t ever bridge the gap and be considered respected contributors instead of just audience members. You don’t want to establish yourself as the person who derails every meeting they get invited to.

  12. Pensive*

    With regard to the last paragraph a wise co-worker once said, “If you told Boss something three times and he won’t listen – you need to stop telling him”. Not to imply that your boss won’t listen to input, but even my boss, who I liked, sometimes had areas where he had already made up his mind – maybe for reasons I was unaware of. So even when I felt strongly about a course of action, if I’ve made my input known and he made a different decision, I needed to move on. And remembering the quote oddly helped me into a “It’s not me, it’s him” state of mind.

    1. Jules*

      I have a member of my team I wish would take this advice! I hate having to get to the ‘because I say so’ stage!

  13. LBK*

    I’d try as much as possible to phrase your concerns in the form of a question and let the others in the meetings come to the conclusion on their own. So for example, “Regarding that approach you just mentioned – do we know how that would sound to party X?” Lead them into thinking through the same things you’re thinking through, and as long as you’re all working from the same set of information, most of the time they’ll reach the same conclusions you already did. Just let them do it themselves, even if you already know what the answer to that question will be. I play dumb like this a lot when I’m in meetings with people who I don’t have a strong enough rapport with to question more assertively and I’ve found it pretty successful.

  14. Shandra*

    Great advice. I’ll just add that sometimes I will start with “Absolutely, I can do that/we can go that way. Another thought is…” — make it clear, especially in front of my boss’s bosses, that I am behind him/her regardless. This one’s in the delivery, I try to have a very open, helpful tone with the absolutely part.

    People who have worked with me a long time do recognize that phrase as me disagreeing, but that’s ok.

  15. pomme de terre*

    Ugh, I’ve never been a spokesperson but I do work in Comms. Once TPTB wanted to put out a statement that I thought was a massive misstep. I talked them out of it, but it was bad enough that if they had insisted on it, I would have refused to be the one who literally released it. I would have made my boss physically post it to our site and social channels.

  16. Lady Blerd*

    I’m lucky that I have a boss who actually listens and consider my point even when he disagrees or goes a different way. And when does this, he will usually explains his reasoning rather then just say “do as I say” which is an acceptable management style in my organization.

    That said, with my boss or anyone, I do as AAM says above. If I have regulations to back me up, I bring those up as well. And more importantly, I don’t it personal when a boss doesn’t take my advice or has another point of view. Your situation is different because you are the face of your organisation and as you say, you’d get the negative blowback if there is any but as someone mentions above, it would be good for you OP to separate yourself from the job. You are performing a role as mouthpiece for your organization, the words coming out won’t necessarely be your own. If you can do that then it would make it easier to go along with what your bosses want you to do or say.

  17. Marisol*

    One technique that I think is both persuasive and kind is to make sure the boss knows you have heard her out completely before pushing back. No one likes feeling automatically dismissed and if someone is on the receiving end of pushback, they may not assume you have heard them or fully considered what they had to say unless you are explicit about it. So before voicing your objection you could summarize their position: “so if I understand you correctly, you are proposing we do xyz in order to achieve abc and subsequently def, is that right?” and just give the other person as much time as they need to “feel” heard. Then when you raise your counterpoint, the boss will naturally be more receptive to what you have to say. I think honoring the emotional need of the person you are dialoging with is ultimately more important than any specific choice of words.

    1. OhNo*

      This is a great method, which has worked well for me in the past. It helps avoid frustration on both sides, because it allows you to make sure that you’re both on the same page before you start in on your critique. And more importantly, it makes your criticism seem more valid, because you can use the recap to make it clear that you understand what they’re proposing, and what the good parts of the idea are, before you jump in to refuting it.

      Another phrase I like to use (which is considerably more roundabout than Alison’s suggestions) is: “I wonder if that would make people think/feel X. What do you think?”, wait for their opinion, and if they’re not convinced follow up with possible examples of the problem you’re seeing. I prefer that method because getting their initial opinion helps me frame my arguments, but YMMV.

  18. Marina*

    My favorite phrasing is, “If we go with X, I’d like to have a plan in place in case of Y.” That keeps the focus on problem-solving and keeps it out of the personal/ego. That also lets the boss accurately weigh the pros vs cons of this plan vs other plans, because every plan is going to have pros and cons.

  19. Mephyle*

    OP’s comment, “Part of my position description notes I should be advising senior leaders, and I want to make sure they know I am available to advise!
    Would it be possible to have some discussions at a non-crisis time – small meetings or one-on-ones with (some of) the senior leaders – to talk about this and raise the concern you wrote about here? Ask them what they would want you to do in the heat of the moment when you feel that your advice is needed to keep a decision from going down a wrong path.

  20. ArtK*

    First, learn how to disagree with people. Period. Some of my thoughts:

    1) Make sure you understand their point. Practice active listening. Don’t spend time while they’re talking composing your own reply. I miss things when I do that and then am embarrassed when I’m disagreeing incorrectly;
    2) Before disagreeing, make it clear that you heard and understood them. Restate what they said in your own words first. I don’t mind someone disagreeing with me nearly as much as I mind them ignoring me. That can, and has, sent me into an incoherent rage; fortunately, most of my interactions are by phone and I make liberal use of the “mute” button.

    1. CoffeeLover*

      I really like this advice. That’s really all there is to it. Forget about the power dynamics here and just learn to disagree. There is a way to do it without putting people on the defensive or coming across badly. I’ve always been an outspoken person, so I have a lot of practice disagreeing. I was lucky to go into management consulting out of university, which had me disagreeing in meetings with high-level people early in my career. As Alison said, assume they want to hear your feedback because more than likely they really do! It’s rare you’ll find someone who knows everything and every right course of action. (Don’t we all suffer from imposter syndrome to some extent?) As long as you know when to stop, people are happy to have their ideas looked at from other angles. It also gives them the chance to develop their own thoughts and defenses around their ideas. I would think this is especially true with communications where interpretation really matters.

  21. Chinook*

    I am running into this issue with a department I have been loaned to as a corporate trainer. The woman in charge (WIC) and I definitely have a personality clash (it took me over a year to realize it), but she is often so focused on her issues/viewpoint that she doesn’t seem to take into account how her decisions may impact the people actually doing the work. (For context: she was hired to help us implement a system to formally standardize all our management systems in a company that has been building teapots for over half a century. We have always had standards – proof is that our select collection of teapots have never had a manufacturer’s defect as long as the consumer didn’t do something stupid like bash them into the ground – we just were very, very bad at documenting them).

    I, on the other hand, work daily as an administrative assistant with the our teapot curators and inspectors who are busy trying to keep our old teapots in tip-top shape. These are blue collar workers who are hired for their technical expertise and not their office skills. I have been seconded to her department because I successfully implemented a couple of software programs that improved our record keeping and did so without an uprising from the guys who prefer to do as little paperwork as possible and often complain loudly about having to log in to a computer (because they can’t do that and fix teapots at the same time).

    So, when the WIC wanted to implement a new computer program, I try to bring up potential issues and how we have fixed them but she contradicted me harshly and argues with me about how I am wrong. I would give her advice on how to implement training (the one thing I have expertise on as I have a B.Ed., years of experience with adult education and I actually work with the guys they will be training whereas she has no reason to interact with them), and she outright said it was a horrible idea and would never work. She said that the people were are training are not smart enough and need to be spoon fed information. At that point, I realized that my voice wasn’t going to be heard and so I agreed to implement her idea but refused to acknowledge that she was right. Three times in a row she insisted we had to do it her way and I agreed without clarification (I know I did this because I was biting my tongue from saying more at this point). The last time she did this to me, the other person in the room, who was her direct report, tried to intervene and tell us to calm down. I just looked at her and pointed out that I had agreed to do what she asked 3 times and what more did she want. She didn’t have a response.

    It got worse. She insisted on being part of the training sessions so that she could answer content questions. What she would do is interrupt me in mid-sentence to say what I was about to say (I noticed this happened more often when a manager or director was in the room). I suspect it is because she lacks confidence in my content because I don’t work off a script but use slides and let the questions in the room guide me so that I am answering real questions and concerns. During one of these presentations, I learned that she had approved changes to computer program without bothering to tell me until I was in the middle of a training session. Ironically, the change was one I had recommended 3 months earlier which she declared stupid. A few other times she directly contradicted what I had been saying because something she had decided to change how to use a field without bothering to tell me.

    All of her actions have made me feel like a failure to the point that I have asked her, in private, if she wants to take over the presentations (I have completed 4 of 20). Nope. She wants me to keep doing it but then, in the next meeting, she sand bags me with another change. I keep feeling like she is setting me up for failure. I have done what AAM recommends here and am working very hard to take my ego out of this, but how can I politely tell her to STFU while I am presenting and to give me heads up when she changes something fundamental in the program because she makes it look like I have no clue what I am talking about.

    Basically, like the OP here, I disagree with this manager at a fundamental level and even think it will damage her long term plan, and I don’t know how to deal with it (other than vent to strangers).

    1. CoffeeLover*

      You said you’ve been seconded to work under her for this project. I would go back to my manager and say, “We agreed I would be seconded to work under WIC because of my previous experience successfully implementing systems. I don’t feel I’ve been able to add as much value to this project as we we planned, and was hoping to get your thoughts on it. WIC has been very unwilling to listen to any feedback and does not give me the information I need to do my job effectively (elaborate with what you’ve said here). How do you think I should handle this situation? Do you still think it’s worth keeping me seconded on the project (if you can justify leaving)?”

      I think this would do a few things. It let’s someone with power know what’s going on, so if this things crashes and burns at least it won’t be on you. It gets your manager on board since she lost a resource because she thought you would be better utilized somewhere else, only to learn you’re talents are basically being wasted. Your manager might give you some options you hadn’t thought of. It’s hard for us to know what you should do/who to talk to without knowing the organizational structure/political situation, but I’m sure there’s someone with the power to change things.

  22. Jen*

    Okay, I’ll throw in my two cents – as I said upthread, I’m a communications person (a senior advisor, in fact), with over a decade of experience, most of which is in media relations as a spokesperson.

    So, that all said – disagreeing with your bosses, directors, etc., is a matter of business. My personality is such that I’m comfortable doing it (especially with the length of time I’ve been at my job), but I recognize not everyone is there. What I have found works for me and my organization (not a hospital, and less involved in crisis communications), is to say something like, “I’m worried/I was concerned that language opens the door up to these questions.”

    Basically, if you’re worried an approach is a bad one or has risks associated with it, speak up. But the way I see it, at the end of the day, my job is advisor – I’ve given my advice, and if those above me choose not to take it, so be it. They’re paid more and have a bigger picture to look at than I do. And sure, if my name is associated with something bad in the media, that sucks for me, but that’s also the job. As long as my bosses aren’t upset, I can live with it!

  23. Vicki*

    As a consultant, I have actually said this to clients: “My job is to make recommendations. Yours is to accept them or not.”

    I short-circuited on argument once with this. The manager stopped, thought, and said “Oh.”

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