How to disagree diplomatically and respectfully in Business English: A lesson with 25 sample phrases.
Business meetings and negotiations are often “won” by the people who are the best communicators. In your native tongue, you may be a diplomacy champ, but how skillful are you in English? Diplomacy is a social and cultural construct, and if English is not your first language, you may not be skillful in navigating the subtleties of diplomatic English.
For example, can you disagree diplomatically in English? Can you disagree clearly but politely and respectfully – without creating hurt feelings, hostility, resistance or even enemies? No? No worries! We have some free advice.
First, you have to listen. People will notice if you are texting, booking a vacation or planning your next clever comment while they are speaking. Show respect for the speaker with your face, eyes, body language and of course, your ears. And if you did not hear/understand/grasp what they said, ask them to restate it. Once you know what they said, you can connect to it and disagree diplomatically and authentically.
Many Nederlanders have a very direct approach to disagreement, but you are warned to soften that in order to keep things friendly with English speakers. Dutch directness may be respected, but it is not always appreciated. As English speakers, we apply rules of diplomacy to our conversations. So be careful that you do not appear rude “in the eyes” of your English-speaking colleagues.
Of course when you speak English with people from other cultures / other countries, expectations can be different, and some cultures do require or expect a rather direct approach, but English speakers like diplomacy.
A good way to begin to disagree diplomatically is by restating the other speaker’s point of view. For example, “Tom, I hear what you’re saying about the profits from last quarter. You’re right that they weren’t very good. However, I want to point out that there were some extraordinary conditions that caused that slump, and we don’t expect this downturn to continue.
With this restatement of Tom’s concerns, I have let him know that I heard him. But I have still clearly disagreed with his point of view.
Another example of diplomatic disagreement–
Your colleague says, ”Mary has been doing an excellent job. I think we should give her a promotion.” If you do not agree that Mary has been doing a great job and should receive a promotion, you might say something like, “It sounds like you’re very happy with Mary’s performance and she has indeed done some great work on our team. But I have some concerns about her organizational ability, and I don’t feel that she’s ready for a promotion just yet.”
Sometimes it’s not necessary to restate what your colleague has said. Sometimes it’s as simple as saying, “I hear what you’re saying. I know you’re concerned about this problem and I am, too, However, I don’t fully agree with the solution that you’re proposing.”
As you can see in the texts above and below, the conjunctions “however” and “but” are doing a lot of “heavy lifting” (=working hard) in diplomatic English. These connecting words are super important as they prepare the listener for the disagreement which follows the initial phrase.
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