10 top tips to enable constructive challenge

Guidance on dealing with disagreement constructively.

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  1. It is ok for people to disagree. Line managers may wish to challenge their colleagues and vice versa; staff may want to share concerns about proposals without feeling they are being negative. Try to recognise that robust and challenging discussions can be constructive if handled appropriately. They need not be damaging.
  2. Find a safe space for the discussion – ie somewhere you will not be overheard or interrupted.  Think about the other person’s comfort zone, for example an employee may be more comfortable in a neutral location than in their manager’s office.
  3. Focus on the issues not the person.  As in football, “play the ball and not the player”.  Look actively for ways of showing the other person that you value and respect them as a person and respect their views, even if you disagree with what they are saying.. 
  4. Give an assurance of confidentiality at the outset and request such an assurance in return.  However it may be necessary for either or both of you to report the outcome of the discussion to others and if so, clarify that at the outset.  Make sure both of you understand the purpose of the discussion.
  5. Look for common ground.  If you are aware of areas of agreement, raise these quickly in the discussion, so that you get off to a constructive start. 
  6. Make sure that you listen as much as you speak.  In fact, it is usually best (from your perspective) if the other person does most of the talking.  Make sure that you show that you are listening to them. Try to avoid just thinking of your next point while the other person is talking – it is likely to interrupt your attention and show on your face that you’re not really listening to them!  Always let the other person finish what they are saying before you jump in with your thoughts.
  7. Stop and think before replying.  Pauses and silence are OK.  Take your time.  If it is an email discussion, always read over your draft a few hours after you wrote it before you send it.  A second edit gives opportunity for a calmer response which is likely to be more constructive,  even if at first you were angry.  But don’t feel that you cannot express your own views.  The more respect you show and the more comfortable you can make the other person, the easier it will be for you to be listened to when you “tell it like it is”.
  8. Take opportunities to clarify what the other person is saying.  When doing so, look for the positive.  If the other person expresses themselves in an angry or exaggerated way, look for the most relevant thing they are saying and reflect that back to them in more neutral, acceptable language. 
    • For example, if X says to their line manager: “ Y is just a waste of space, a total non-contributor. They think they are the bees’ knees but they’re actually the bane of my life”, the line manager might respond by saying “ OK, I understand that you have some serious issues with Y, both in terms of your views on work performance and how you feel you both relate to each other”. X is then likely to move from wild generalities to more specific issues which may be addressed in a constructive way.
  9. Don’t look for a hands-down victory. Instead look for a mutually acceptable resolution, something which the other person will be willing to accept and work with, rather than simply resenting and undermining the resolution after the discussion.  Learn to live with a partial solution – if that’s the best outcome.  A little progress can build for the future.  You can come back another day to deal with the remaining (perhaps more difficult) issues once you have shown you both have found a way to resolve the smaller ones.  Show the other person that you can take their point on board and that they can trust you to deliver on what you have agreed to do.
  10. Finally, if you would like some more in-depth help with your approach to managing difficult or challenging meetings and discussions, the EDR team can arrange to offer further support to you. Contact email: edr@dundee.ac.uk