The art (and science) of disagreement

In these days of political squabbles where everybody seems to have an opinion, the saying, ‘Let’s just agree to disagree’ appears to be a reasonable statement. But when asked to ‘agree to disagree,’ a person can end up feeling like he or she is being told to disown, or renounce, what they think or believe. From a mental health viewpoint, that’s not a good idea, because holding true to what you honestly think is the essence of self-esteem.

So what do you do when someone disagrees with you, and you’re unable to sway them over to your point of view? Maybe it’s religion, or the upcoming election. Or maybe it’s trying to stop a loved one from doing something you don’t think he should do.

The first rule of disagreeing with someone is to remember that this person has his or her own mind—and it’s your job to motivate that mind to listen to you. In other words, don’t dive right in by telling him why you know you’re correct. Instead, try to make a (brief) case for why he should even listen to you in the first place, while still acknowledging his point of view.

Put yourself in the position of a person about to be persuaded. Which of the following two approaches is more likely to motivate you to listen? Approach #1: ‘You’re wrong. And I’m going to show you why.’ Or, approach #2: ‘I know you feel passionately about what you said. But I have a different perspective. It takes into account something you might be missing. Will you consider it?’ The answer is obvious, of course.

You’ll never persuade anyone if you can’t first convince them to listen. Once you have their attention, you’re halfway there. In debating or persuading, motivation is everything—especially in this age of ‘information overload’ when nobody has much of an attention span. There’s so much coming our way that we have learned to tune out by quickly moving on to the next channel, web page, email, text message, fax, blog, instant message, phone call or…column. Like it or not, you need to become an effective ‘sound bite’ if someone’s going to take the time to hear you out.

In many cases, no matter what you do, persuasion doesn’t work. People can get locked into their ideas for any number of reasons. At that point, there’s really no other choice but to agree to disagree, at least in the short-term. This ‘agreement’ can actually imply some positive things, such as ‘Even though we don’t see eye-to-eye on this subject, we still like each other and will get on with the business of being friends.’ With a spouse or loved one it’s even deeper: ‘Even though we don’t agree, we still love each other. We’re still OK and nothing can change how we feel about one another.’

Of course, even a good thing can be misused. Consider these insightful comments from an online writer at ‘Often in a discussion’the person I am talking to will declare, ‘let’s just agree to disagree.’ Sometimes I accept this and let the debate end there, and sometimes I get a bit annoyed and try to press my point. When I do the latter, I am told that I’m a bad sport, or I’m accused of suffering from an obsession to force people to agree with me. Let me explain how I decide my course of action when I hear those familiar words. If there is a genuine stalemate, that is, if there are key issues to the discussion that simply cannot be resolved through objective, rational means; if our views clearly cannot be reconciled through progressive, evidence-based discussion, then I have absolutely no problem agreeing to disagree. I may even suggest it myself. What really presses my buttons is someone hiding behind ‘let’s just agree to disagree’ to save face while retreating from an argument that they know they have lost.’ Sound familiar?

The online writer has a good point. If you’re intellectually and psychologically honest, and if someone makes a point that you cannot contradict, then the only authentic thing to say in response is, ‘I must admit, I don’t have a reply to that. I could be wrong. Give me some time to think about this.’ People don’t usually approach debates or disagreements in this reality-based manner, but they should. If they did, disagreement wouldn’t be quite the unpleasant experience that it is.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that there’s nothing inherently wrong with disagreement. Most of the time, you can still like and respect someone with whom you disagree, especially if your relationship with them is worth more to you than ‘winning’ the argument. If their position is truly a deal breaker to your friendship—or even your marriage—then it’s tough, but you’ll survive. Deal breakers are the exception, not the rule.

Speaking for myself, I look for the METHOD by which people draw conclusions, more than the conclusions themselves. I look to see if they are reasonable, intellectually honest and willing to listen. Are they striving for the truth, or are they, first and foremost, seeking to be (and/or appear) right? The first are the kind of people to stay with and to treasure. The second are the ones who give disagreement a bad name.