How to disagree with your client in the right way

If you walk into a room expecting an argument, that’s what you’re likely to get

Don’t arm yourself for battle. That’s not the way to change minds.

In business, diplomatic skills are invaluable. Indeed, in some cases, being able to skilfully negotiate your way through a tricky situation can turn a disastrous failure into a notable success.
And this is particularly true when you find yourself compelled to disagree with someone who, in principle, you should be doing your best to agree with. We’ve all been in such situations: a client requests a course of action you know will not work; a manager proposes a project you are convinced will fail. Even in circumstances where you are the expert, employed to point out areas for change and improvement, there is a very fine line to be walked to make your point while managing the many personalities and goals in the room – the very personalities and goals that pay the bills. So how can you do it?


First, you should be looking to do any disagreeing in person, or at least on the phone. That way, you can read the situation accurately and there is much less room for tonal inaccuracies or miscommunication. Always start the conversation by asking what the person you disagree with thinks you should do. Don’t forget that it will ultimately be their decision, even if their choice seems to go against the facts. And be conscious of the mood. If you think there’s going to be an argument, you’re inviting one into the room. So go in expecting a conversation rather than a battle.


In the instances where I am going to be making a point of pushing a product, idea or direction which I know the client has already ruled out, information is king. Make sure you know your facts and have checked them. This will ensure you have an informed opinion, rather than simply a differing one. While many of us are employed as experts in our field, the regularity with which the parties you are dealing with will overrule your areas of expertise means that knowing your topic inside out is crucial. This includes gathering your evidence, double checking your sources, and getting it in writing where necessary.


Once you know you are well-armed, the key is not telling anyone that they are wrong or that you disagree with them but, hopefully, steering them to discover your point for themselves. Don’t forget that the goal is to leave with what you want, even if that means the client thinking they concocted the idea on their own. When redirecting the conversation, understanding why the client is wrong is important, as mistaken assumptions are often at the heart of the issue. These can be quickly realigned to get you all on the same page.
Equally important is understanding how the client being wrong will affect them: what they will have to change, and what costs are associated. If they will have to present a strategy change to their boss, for example, give them everything they require for that presentation to go well. In doing so, you are lining them up for success, without anyone ever realising you disagreed.
James Wilkins is managing director of Vista.

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