Polite Ways to Disagree

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In all business situations, colleagues are bound to disagree.  This teaching tip provides a summary of key ideas and practical strategies for politely disagreeing. It encourages students to think about their relationship to their audience and about how they may maintain that relationship while disagreeing.

Content Objectives

  • To introduce students to disagreeing in English
  • To encourage students to be aware of their needs and those of others, including from a cross-cultural perspective

Language Objectives

  • To provide opportunities for students to practice politely disagreeing
  • To discuss the challenges that might arise in expressing disagreement when working with people of other cultures


1. Read the Background Reading on politely disagreeing.

2. Discuss the purpose of politely disagreeing and how it might be different in the students’ home cultures.

o Ask students to talk about their politeness strategies in their context, culture, or economy.
o Ask several students why we are polite.
o Clarify and provide additional examples for students as needed.
o Ask the students what important issues from their own culture were not addressed. (There might not be any.)

3. Have students work in pairs to do the Sample Exercise.

4. Advanced activity (thinking outside the box): disagreeing with authority figures

We are usually focused on what we want. However, by politely disagreeing with others, we have a better chance of reaching an appropriate solution.
Ask the students to brainstorm reasons they could give a future or current boss to justify asking for a raise. The teacher should role-play the boss and confront the students with a reason they should not receive the raise. The students should respond by politely disagreeing with the boss while still trying to receive the raise.


Background Reading and Sample Exercises


English for Business and Diplomacy: intercultural communication

Learning Theme

Learning to do; problem solving


Agreeing and disagreeing (n.d.). Retrieved from www.english-online.org.uk/adv5/agree1a.htm

Bloomburg, S.D. (2009). English for meetings- Expressing disagreement. Retrieved from sites.google.com/site/progressiveesl/english-program-esl/english-communication-tips-boston-ma/english-communication-tip-3

Kreutel, K. (2007). ‘I'm not agree with you’ ESL learners' expressions of disagreement. Retrieved from tesl-ej.org/ej43/a1.html


Charles Hall, PhD, dr. h. c., Department of English, University of Memphis, Memphis, TN, USA  

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Also see Cross-Cultural Awareness for 21st Century Business