Speak Up: A Guide to Presenting Dissenting Opinions in the Workplace
In the late ’80s,I became a board member of Portland, Maine’s politically influential Parkside Neighborhood Association. I was in my early 20s, single, ambitious, and looking to make a difference – and the association was looking for an infusion of younger people reflective of the influx of new residents who were moving into Maine’s “City by the Sea,” as Longfellow affectionately called his birthplace.
I knew the association’s president, antiquarian book-dealer David Turner – a dynamic and driven guy who had a view of the world that he wanted to see come to pass. I liked David, but it was clear he was the voice and vision of the group.
In 1990, there was a contested race for the open seat of district attorney in Cumberland County. The race was between two Portland lawyers, David Perkins (D) and Stephanie Anderson (R). Turner hosted two separate meet-and-greet cocktail parties at his home for Perkins and Anderson, and all the board members spent their time asking questions and getting to know the two hopefuls. A few days later, we convened to decide which of the two would get the coveted Parkside Neighborhood Association endorsement.
Shortly after the meeting came to order, Turner got up and said (near as I can recall), “I think we all know who we’re going to endorse, so unless anyone disagrees, let’s take a vote.”
His candidate – the candidate he wanted Parkside to endorse – was Perkins.
I had a different opinion and hesitated a moment, hoping someone else would speak up (I was the newest and youngest member, after all) – but no one did. So I cleared my throat and said I disagreed, that I thought we should endorse Anderson.
I reasoned that, during the cocktail parties, I spoke with and listened to Stephanie Anderson talk about the crime in our area and other issues that I knew were of concern to the board. Anderson had come to our reception prepared and eager to tell us how she planned to make the city and our neighborhood a better place to live during this transformative time. When we were done talking with her, I felt like she was someone interested in using the authority of the D.A.’s office for our benefit.
Perkins, on the other hand, stated without ambiguity that he saw the Cumberland County D.A.’s office as “a stepping stone to the Blaine House” (Maine’s governor’s mansion). He didn’t want to be district attorney; he wanted to be governor. I said I thought we should endorse Anderson’s commitment to our issues rather than someone who had his eyes on another prize.
Turner was taken aback and seemed almost offended that I had shown the temerity to express an opposing view. But because I spoke up, others in the room who had the same opinion also felt empowered to express their support for Anderson. The meeting and decision quickly changed a formality to a brief but lively debate.
The vote was taken and … Perkins won, narrowly. But my vindication came on Election Day, when Anderson went on to win the race. She remains in office today, having been re-elected to the position in every subsequent election. Mr. Perkins’s political ambitions appear to have been tempered by his loss; he remains in private law practice.
My lesson from that experience is that you don’t have to accept the foregone conclusion or the loudest opinion in the room – that there is infectious strength in speaking up against a powerful individual.
That does not mean that we have license to engage in petty arguments to satisfy our egos, but that, with the right approach and with the confidence of conviction, you should feel able to advocate for a different perspective. Know why you must speak up, be prepared to factually defend your position, be respectful, and be willing to concede defeat with grace and dignity.
I have used the lessons of that day to guide me in a quarter-century of professional and personal life – though, perhaps I have not used them as often as I should have.
And even when mine is the loudest opinion in the room, I am reminded of the young man who spoke up for himself on that day, and I am grateful when others are bold enough to state their own cases.
When Discussing Matters of Professional Opinion, Remember:
- Prepare in advance and have confidence in your approach.
- Discuss and support your position using facts and reason.
- Be calm and respectful of others in your manner of speech.
- Be willing to accept the possibility of defeat with grace and dignity.