Mastering the Art of Challenging

Image source: Flickr Commons.

Disagreement is common in the workplace. I bet that in the last week (or even in the last day) you’ve come across challenging viewpoints.

Putting forward an opposing view to an idea, proposal, or strategy, is an essential part of skilled leadership.  The ability to challenge others in a positive and non-confrontational way is a skill worth mastering, I reckon.

But the reality is, so often challenges fall into one of two extremes:

  1. Aggressive, confrontational, and/or involving personal attacks


2. Soft-soapy, sugar coated…or even completely avoided.

None of these approaches produce a beneficial outcome.

Here are 10 simple approaches  to challenge effectively:

1. “What would some of the unintended consequences of this idea be on X?” or “I wonder what the implications on X are of this idea?”

2. “That’s an interesting idea.  I’d like to add an alternative.”

3.  Provide a piece of missing information that others may not have thought of.

“I’m just thinking about the recent trend of XYZ in the market and wonder what impact that might have on this idea.”

4. “If I were to play devil’s advocate for a minute…”

5. “Is it okay if I challenge that idea?”

6. “What about the so and so factor…?”

7.  ”What are we missing here?”

8. “What assumptions are we making? What might we need to revisit?”

9.  ”Before we commit to X, are there other ways we can achieve our goal of X?  It’d be good if we have covered all bases before committing….”

10. “Does anyone else have any alternatives?”

Notice you are not challenging them. Only the idea.

Tone and body language play an important role in the art of challenging.

Aggressive body language such as finger pointing, table thumping (does anyone ever do this anymore?) and an emotive tone will mean others see only your emotion – not the key message you want to portray.

So try to say your piece in a relaxed, neutral tone.  This will help you to be heard without distortion.

Also, don’t feel you have to fight an idea on your own.  Knowing when to shut up and listen or let others have their say and support your idea is an important part of successful challenging.  If you can avoid the fight yourself, even better.

Finally, it could be the opposing idea has legs but just needs work. Be open to this and be aware if you are becoming entrenched or positional.

Do you have any tips for mastering the art of challenging? Can you add any approaches to the list above? Please leave your feedback in the comments section below.

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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