By
updated 10/6/2009 6:09:07 PM ET 2009-10-06T22:09:07

An idea is tossed around at a brainstorming meeting. The group seems to really go for it, although one woman disagrees. But rather than speaking up, she sits in stony silence.

Is she shy? Possibly. Or maybe she has no opinion on the topic. In this case, though, she's not chiming in because in the past, when she's suggested an alternate point of view, someone always bats it down — and the group moves on. Paralyzed, the woman sinks back in her chair, dying to say something but feeling resentful of everyone in the room.

The problem isn't exclusive to female professionals, of course. But women do tend to be more self-conscious in group settings. Women are also more likely to take criticism personally. Those two elements — sensitivity and self-consciousness — can make it very hard for professional women to disagree in a respectful manner.

There's nothing wrong with disagreement in the workplace, so long as it's dealt with professionally. Strategizing and keeping your reactions in check is the easiest route to navigating the landmine of on-the-job arguments.

Do some ‘pre-work’
Career coach Molly Shepard counsels women to manage their workplace relationships strategically. "Women see themselves as outsiders," she says. "They don't spend enough time figuring out who the decision makers are and bringing them over to our side." The obvious downside when it comes to workplace conflict? "They jump into battle" without the safety net of others.

“You need to do some pre-work" — before you enter the conference room arena, advises Shepard. Find out who your allies and challengers are. Share your position on the contentious agenda topic or an idea with them ahead of time. You may even be able to sway some opposing opinions in your favor.

Your goal — to be prepared — helps them too. Shepard says she's found that men in particular don't like to be caught off guard. "Men do this effectively," she says. They make it their business to "know where Joe stands."

Personalize your audience and know what their concerns and objectives are. Then ready yourself for debate with the people who are still dissenters.

"Visualize who you might have a disagreement with at the meeting," counsels Shepard. "Think about what could be said that hits your hot button and will make you react emotionally."

If you suspect (or know) that one or more individuals are out to intentionally sabotage you, tell your supporters about it beforehand. Remember to ask for back-up if they see someone trying to torpedo your efforts.

Always use honesty
Honesty counts with your partners and your opponents at work. How many times have you worked with a colleague on a project only to find that the two of you frequently disagree on direction? The solution: When it comes to finding common ground, don't be afraid to say out loud that you're having trouble coming to a mutual understanding. Then try to build an approach around what you can both agree on.

Above all, says Shepard, don't leave a meeting intending to go your own way. "Because then you've got an enemy — who might be better connected than you."

But the problem can go the other way. Women can steamroll dissenters as vigorously as men.

Lori Dernavich, who consults to companies going through a restructuring, tells of a woman who was brought in at the top to turn the company around. Dernavich was hired to get the team working as a whole, but she found this to be a tough assignment.

"She didn't care what people had to say," Dernavich recalls. "It turned out that she wanted to come in and show the senior team that she was in control. She's still there, but I've found out the executive team is all looking for jobs."

Listen to others
The best way to keep from alienating people is to let them know you're "hearing" them. "You can assure the person you respect them, that you're open-minded; you can give them the floor." Another helpful tactic is to acknowledge what they've said by paraphrasing their statements back to them.

Then try to get them to take your side, without making them feel attacked. Dernavich suggests saying, "I know this is where you come from ... let's play devil's advocate: Let's look at what could go wrong." You can also pose the question to the group, so the speaker doesn't feel personally attacked.

Remember, too, Dernavich, notes, that many people — men and women — lack confidence in their jobs or careers, especially in this economy. "Are they fearful that they'll lose their job if they didn't come up with the idea?" she suggests. "It might help you not to take things so personally."

Balancing professional disagreements without stumbling into out-and-out conflict can seem like a tightrope walk. "Because we're strong and opinionated and smart, we will always have people who don't agree with us," says Shepard. "It's how we handle it that allows us to disagree without tears."

© 2012 Forbes.com

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments

Data: Latest rates in the US

Home equity rates View rates in your area
Home equity type Today +/- Chart
$30K HELOC FICO 2.79%
$30K home equity loan FICO 5.78%
$75K home equity loan FICO 4.54%
Credit card rates View more rates
Card type Today +/- Last Week
Low Interest Cards 13.57%
13.57%
Cash Back Cards 17.91%
17.91%
Rewards Cards 17.15%
17.15%
Source: Bankrate.com