The Perils and Positives of “Agreeing to Disagree” (DE Coast Press)

Quote reads I'd agree with you but then we'd both be wrong

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 in fact, one is “agreeing” to disown, or renounce, what they 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? The first rule of disagreeing with someone is to remember that you must motivate him or her to listen; don’t dive in by announcing why you know you’re correct. Instead, try to make a (brief) case for your position while still acknowledging that person’s point of view.

If you were about to be persuaded to do something, which of the following two approaches is more likely to motivate you? Approach #1: “You’re wrong! And here’s why.” Or, approach #2: “I know you feel passionately about this. 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 and the three-second attention span. We have learned to tune out by quickly moving on to the next channel, website, email, text message, instant message, phone call … or column. You need to become an effective “sound bite” if someone’s going to take the time to hear you out.

In many cases persuasion won’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 still liking one another. With a spouse or loved one it’s even deeper: “Even though we don’t agree, we still love each other. Nothing can change how we feel about one another.”

Of course, even a good thing can be misused. Often in a discussion, a person will declare that you should agree to disagree. You can let it end there, or you can press the point. But if you do the latter, you might be accused of being a bad sport, or obsessed with people having to agree with you. Indeed, if there is a genuine stalemate, then agreeing to disagree is the only solution. But often, a person will hide behind “agreeing to disagree” while retreating from an argument that they know they have lost. Sound familiar? People don’t usually approach debates or disagreements in this reality-based manner. 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 dealbreaker to your friendship – or your marriage – then it’s tough, but you’ll survive. Dealbreakers are the exception, not the rule.

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.


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