How to disagree in Australia and live to tell the tale
Sting describes in his song the experience of being an Englishman in NY as being an “alien”.
I know that feeling well. I was born and raised in Israel and after meeting my Australian partner we chose to make Australia home
countrymen and women and many other aliens I met along the way, learning how to communicate effectively especially in times of disagreement is a real challenge in Australia. I do feel sometimes like I am from a different planet.
Speaking up, challenging authority, being the devil’s advocate, speaking loud and passionately about your views and sharing them directly when they emerge, are all not only wildly accepted in Israel but even celebrated. The Israeli Hutzpah is famous for direct and ‘sharp around the edges’ communication.
I remember standing up in front of an auditorium full of officers’ school cadets and posing a question to the most senior officer- the commander of the school, demanding to understand why the education program of the male officers’ school is so much more elaborate and meaningful than the one we were offered in the female officers’ school. I was 19. Years later I have learned that following my question, a delegation from the female school was sent to the male school to get guidance on their education programs. Not only speaking up had no repercussions for me – it had an impact on the system.
When we arrived in Australia, I remember vividly the first time I understood speaking up is somewhat different here. I was participating in a team meeting with our manager. She asked in a welcoming voice if there were any issues anyone would like to raise. There was no hesitation before I raised my hand and spoke up asking if there was a way for the administrative team to consult with us before booking us after hour meetings. I knew that many of the team was resentful of that. I was polite and respectful and blatantly direct. There was a long pause, and the silence was deafening. The manager looked at the other teammates and asked – does anyone else feel the same? Not one person raised their hand and after-hour meetings continued to be scheduled without consent. A few months later I resigned.
I realised then, that a softer, round-edged approach is needed, if I wanted to influence people and systems.
So how can we disagree, speak up in an Australian way?
I find the answer in this quote by John Wooden:
“We can agree to disagree, but we don’t need to be disagreeable”.
We can and should speak up and be ourselves, but we need to be mindful to how we do it.
Delivering a controversial message like I did, without preparation, in front of an audience, expecting immediate response and being angry when change doesn’t happen, is being disagreeable.
If you tend to be disagreeable like I was, and want to become more influential – here are three suggestions for you to consider:
What you choose to share should be focused on the Yes. Instead of negating the strategy on the table – Offer another alternative strategy to consider. Present what do you suggest and show (share relevant supportive data) how it can better advance our mutual goals.
How you choose to share it is critical. Instead of using statements (often ending with an exclamation mark) ask questions. How would this strategy help us reach our goals? Are there any other ways we can approach this that might save us valuable resources? What if this strategy doesn’t work? How can we be better prepared? Pay attention to your intonation and body language as the art of asking questions is a whole-body endeavour. If you are genuinely curious about other people’s perspectives then that will drive your enquiry’s tone.
As the saying go, timing is everything. If you disagree, make sure first that you fully understand the data and the reasoning behind the current suggestion before objecting to it. Maybe you are missing something. If you still want to deliver a difficult message – try not to do it in front of a crowd. Create an intimate setting and share your concerns, ask your tough questions, and listen carefully to the answers. You would be much more likely to be more influential. If you have to keep the multiparty setting- make sure you prepare, and design the agenda to include other ways of thinking. Surprises are not welcomed in negotiation, especially in conflict situations.
So, for all the aliens out there… Let’s not resort to staying silent and supressing our thoughts and feelings but rather be more thoughtful and strategic in how we share them.
“Every word has consequences. Every silence, too” Jean-Paul Sartre.