How to Disagree, Agreeably
July 24, 2015
Unless you’re Donald Trump, you’re probably realistic about the fact that not everybody in your life is going to agree with your viewpoints or with the wisdom regarding the way you’ve chosen to do things. Most of the time, disagreeing with somebody is a perfectly routine experience and requires no special effort or mental energy. I like vegetarian pizza, you like pepperoni. We politely acknowledge the disagreement, we tell Pizza Hut that we want half vegetarian and half pepperoni on our large pie, and we eat our pizza and go on with our lives. There are times, of course, when our disagreements require more attention – that often means that we’re going to have to discuss it until we reach a resolution, or until we are so tired of disagreeing that we decide that no resolution is possible.
This can be dangerous, of course. Many areas of disagreement, and the discussion of the disagreement, can strongly affect our feelings of respect and affection for one another. Occasionally, you can leave a disagreement with somebody with a renewed sense of respect and admiration for that person. That largely depends on how maturely and how kindly she conducts herself in the course of the discussion. Much of the time, however, drawn-out discussions on the things about which we disagree tend to be emotionally draining, and sometimes infuriating.
Below, I propose a few tips to keep in mind when you find yourself in an important disagreement. While you can never be certain how the person with whom disagreeing is going to perceive the experience, if you follow these tips, I’m confident that your chances of leaving the disagreement feeling as though it was a constructive experience are going to significantly increase.
1. Consider your Purpose
It’s really easy to get sucked into a pointless debate with somebody whose views make your skin crawl. Of course, it’s important to be judicious in deciding when to engage somebody who has a viewpoint that is at odds with yours. Before jumping into the fray, it’s important to consider what exactly you are trying to achieve when you start debating somebody. Are you attempting to change this person’s point of view? Are you attempting to influence others that may be watching the disagreement unfold? Are you trying to change someone’s behavior? Are you trying to satisfy some emotional need to correct people? Or is there some other purpose? When you have a well-articulated reason why you’re disagreeing with someone, you’ll have a better chance of accomplishing your objective.
In considering your purpose, you might also take some time to consider the realistic, possible outcomes of the disagreement. There are some people who are naturally agreeable, are receptive to suggestions for improvement, and would not feel threatened when somebody approaches them with an alternative viewpoint. Many, however, are not so receptive. This is especially true when they are articulating a viewpoint that is strongly tied to part of their personal identity (such as a political viewpoint, or a religious belief).
Unless the disagreement is over something that is not fundamentally tied to someone’s identity or is not an area where the person with whom I’m disagreeing believes she has special knowledge, I will almost never engage somebody with the purpose of trying to change her mind. When I assert an alternative viewpoint, it is almost always with the purpose of influencing somebody who is not directly part of the disagreement (an onlooker) – in this, I manage my expectations, and I do not get frustrated when the person I’m debating doesn’t see things my way. But whatever your purpose, the process of disagreeing with somebody can be a lot less stressful if you have a realistic idea of what it is that you can accomplish.
2. Distinguish the Person from the Argument
There are few things more frustrating than being personally attacked for having a different point of view. In Latin, the attempt to refute an argument by pointing out a problem with the person making the argument (instead of the argument itself) is known as an “argument ad hominem.” This tactic is commonly understood as a logical fallacy, and is typically regarded as unfair, unkind, and completely irrelevant to the actual discussion.
While attacking the person instead of addressing the argument is almost never good, this does not mean that you cannot create argue from analogy in a way that would make sense to the other person. For example, suppose an Orthodox Jewish man wanted to argue that high school-aged Muslim women shouldn’t wear hijabs (traditional Muslim headwear) in school and that a law forbidding them is not an unconstitutional violation of religious liberty. You might counter and say “would it be unconstitutional to forbid a high school-aged Jewish man from wearing a yarmulke (traditional Jewish headwear)?” While you are taking a page from this individual’s personal life to make an argument that he would understand, you are not personally attacking him. This difference is important. And if you are committed to having mature, constructive disagreements, it’s important to recognize when you are addressing the argument, and when you are attacking the person making the argument.
3. Be Fair in your Description of Somebody’s Position
Another way to completely turn a disagreement from a potentially constructive exercise into a stressful and harmful one is by mischaracterizing what the other person is saying. This is commonly known as a ‘straw man’ argument. The idea is that instead of addressing the point that the other person is making, you slightly modify the point (usually because it’s easier to refute the modified point) and then you address the modified point as though that was the original argument. For example, if somebody is arguing in favor of relaxing laws on medical marijuana, and you counter by saying “if we completely get rid of our drug laws then we’ll have addicts running amok all over the streets,” then that would be treating the other person’s point unfairly.
More than being “right,” it’s important for people to feel understood – especially when they’re in the process of disagreeing with somebody. If you are making little to no effort at properly understanding and addressing the other person’s point, then you are setting yourself up for a stressful and contentious experience. Occasionally, it’s not always clear exactly what the other person’s point is – in these cases, it never hurts to ask questions to get some clarity. But in all things, be fair!
4. Look for Areas of Agreement
One of the pitfalls into which we often fall is the temptation of treating a disagreement as something of a competition. In most competitions, such as sports, the point is to triumph over the other person or the other team. In sports and other activities where it’s possible to keep an objective score, it’s quite a bit easier to determine who the winner is. If you’re treating a disagreement as a competition though, it’s nearly impossible to define a clear ‘winner.’ In Presidential debates, for example, polls tend to show that people will consider the person whose political views most closely align with theirs as the ‘winner’ of the debate. My suggestion is to not view a disagreement as anything of a competition – that way, when you do find areas of common ground, you won’t feel as though you’re giving up a competitive edge by pointing them out and identifying them.
As an individual with strong opinions, it’s not hard for me to find people who say things that irk me, but I always try to recognize the legitimate ideas that are influencing their positions – especially the ideas to which I can relate. And if maintaining rapport with the person with whom you’re disagreeing is important to you, it’s worth the extra effort to try to dig the shared ideas up. For example, suppose I’m having an argument with a person who strongly opposes vaccinating children – while I disagree with the position, I appreciate and acknowledge that at the core of her belief, she is really concerned about the health and welfare of her child. This is something, of course, that I fully accept as a legitimate need. And I always find that it’s worth it to say something about our agreement on that point.
5. Be Humble about the Limitations of your Knowledge
Among the most frustrating things that you can experience in a disagreement is when somebody displays a sense of certainty about things in which they do not have special expertise or knowledge. While everybody has important and illustrative life experiences, and everybody can come to valid opinions based on their life experiences, if you want to be taken seriously during a disagreement, you need to be realistic about the limitations of your knowledge. To use the vaccination example once again, a person with no medical training probably ought not to make strong assertions about the safety of vaccinations – such opinions should be left to those who understand anatomy and medicine thoroughly. You can, of course, refer to an expert opinion as the basis for your opinion, and indicate why you trust the expert. The problem arises when we attempt to assert opinions as though we are experts – especially when these opinions are based on anecdotes.
Heeding this is really difficult for many people – as humans, we do tend to tie a lot of our feelings of worth to our knowledge about things. And of course, when somebody is told (either explicitly or implicitly) that she ‘does not know what she is talking about,’ it can be an enormous emotional challenge. But if we are serious about preserving our own credibility, we ought to limit our strong opinions and strong assertions to things about which we do have special knowledge. Not only will we protect ourselves from unnecessary contention, but it makes it easier to keep an open mind, and to adopt a better belief when one comes by!
6. Always be Kind
You often hear that the real measure of a person’s character is how he behaves when he’s at his worst. I think that you usually need to look no further than a serious disagreement he’s having to see how emotionally and intellectually mature he is. I have always felt that the people who proactively attempt to show kindness in the midst of a disagreement are the ones that I trust most because I know that if I am ever in a position where I disagree with them, I know that it is going to be a safe and constructive exercise.
All of the points that were already discussed are, I believe, necessary to the effort in being kind during disagreements, but there are more. For example, recognizing and articulating the admirable qualities a person has, especially if it’s in the midst of a disagreement, is one of the most disarming and constructive things that you can do. Overtures of kindness go a long way in both establishing and maintaining rapport with people, and in helping them understand that your disagreement with them extends only to the argument – that you still care about them as people.
While of course, none of these things are foolproof, I believe that it’s important to think about these things in the course of your disagreements. If you believe, as I do, that building and maintaining constructive relationships is an important daily activity, then I believe that developing these habits will assist you in that endeavor. And, as always, I hope that my thoughts here are taken and considered in the spirit in which they were intended!