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The Art of Disagreement Leads to Agreement

“In case of dissension, never dare to judge till you've heard the other side.” Euripides, The Children of Herakles

“The statement at the core of all disagreements: I’m right, you’re wrong.” Charles F. Glassman, Brain Drain The Breakthrough That Will Change Your Life

“Honest disagreement is often a good sign of progress.” Mahatma Gandhi

Disagreeing is Vital to a Freely Operating Society.

To discuss issues and problems thoroughly leading to progress or resolution, disagreeing should be welcomed and expected. Disagreeing may help parties to become unstuck from often their unproductive positions. It provokes them to discern the underlying issues or reasons for their positions. Disagreeing often persuades them to question their arguments. In the ideal, this opens the door to creativity leading often to a long lasting, satisfying resolution.

“I like disagreement because it forces both sides two question their own opinions and why they feel that way.”

  • Remember you’re all on the same team. The goal of the conversation isn’t for one person to be proven right or to “win” the argument. The goal is to solve the problem at hand — together.

  • Stick to facts. Make sure people are defending their ideas with clear, sound logic, not with rhetorical tactics or by being the loudest.

  • Don’t make it personal. No name-calling, personal attacks, or questions like “How could you believe that?” Assume that everyone’s intentions are good.

  • Be intellectually humble. Respect everyone’s viewpoints, and be open to changing your mind when necessary.

Avoid Disagreements on Facts-Do the Research

This article focuses on the art of disagreement. The art does not include disagreeing over facts. Disagreements should focus on perspectives and opinions. Many people confuse facts and perspectives. A quick example:

Fact: Today the high will be 82, 60% cloudy and 70% chance of rain.

Perspective: Today will start out nicely temperature wise but it will be cloudy and then you will need to suffer through rain and rain clouds becoming quite dreary.

If they are facts, spend time to get agreement.

If you state something during a negotiation or meeting, be certain you have done your homework-your planning. If you assert something that proves not to be true, then your credibility is at least impeded if not ruined.

Example: On the HBO series Real Time, Host Bill Maher was decrying that Americans will not talk about the horrible obesity crisis. “We cannot even say Weight Watchers these days, we have to use WW.” He asserted that 40,000 Americans die monthly of obesity connected issues.”

His Guest Journalist Kelli Goff asserted that anorexia was just as important. Maher challenged her by asking how many people die monthly of anorexia. “Is it 40,000 per month?” Goff did not know exact figures but maybe thought so. They sparred and disagreed for several minutes.

Research indicates that approximately 830 people die of anorexia each month.

For those who noted this, Goff lost great credibility.

Example 2: A presenter was speaking of criminal justice and claimed 80% of serious violent crime was never reported since the victims did not trust the legal system.

Fact checking revealed that in the US, 42% of serious violent crime is not reported according to NCJRS (National Criminal Justice Reference Service.) The presenter of course lost credibility.

Ensure Disagreements are not Personal.

There will be times when one needs to deal with people whom one does not trust or like. These are people issues, not substantive issues. One needs to use people skills to overcome these issues.

New York Times Bret Stephens reminds readers that,

“Socrates quarrels with Homer. Aristotle quarrels with Plato. Locke quarrels with Hobbes and Rousseau quarrels with them both. Nietzsche quarrels with everyone. Wittgenstein quarrels with himself.

These quarrels are never personal. Nor are they particularly political, at least in the ordinary sense of politics. Sometimes they take place over the distance of decades, even centuries.”*

There will be “people issues” such as personality clashes, differing thinking, communication, conflict management, problem solving styles. If it is a clash of styles aka behaviors, these can be flexed and managed.

Some say that once a word is said, it is dead. I believe it just begins to live that day. The lesson here is to carefully craft and tailor your words and phrases. They take on a life of their own and then multiple the problems. If a person is called a liar, a monster, a joker, that does not set the stage for effective communication. Even focusing on behavior is dangerous. You are lying. You are not trustworthy. You do not believe what you are saying. You are not being logical. You are crazy.

Take time during planning before the event to tailor words and phrases. If one is bothered by a behavior of other parties, use the “I-when-because” approach.

I feel frustrated, when people stray from the topic at hand, because the conversation becomes scattered.

I feel exhausted when people are repetitive because it extends the time of our meeting.

It should be noted that the term “people” is used not “you.” “You” in and of itself becomes an epithet-a target word that seems to irritate.

Of course, there are many “irritators” to avoid such as stupid, fool, foolish.

"Too bad! Disagreeing disrespectfully is so easy. You shout, give quick digs, “got cha” comebacks, name-calling, disdaining, disparaging the other’s viewpoint, shaking your head in disbelief – how could you even think that way???”**

Or, "You are not important." "People like you...."

Disagreements Should Not Be Based on Misunderstanding.

Effective communicators listen clearly. They question. They summarize. They put themselves in the other person’s shoes so they clearly head and understand other’s positions and perspectives.

Use the assumption that people say things and do things that make sense to them at the time. If it does not make sense to the receiver, then they should put their heads on the shoulders of the other and try to imagine “the why’s.” Why are they taking this position? Why are they saying this? Maybe one will discover there are resources issues, money issues, fear, jealousy, pride….


Dr. Linda Sapadin describes in her article The Art of Disagreement, five steps to practice the art of disagreeing.

1. “Acquire more information about the other person’s viewpoint. Don’t just catch the drift of it. Ask questions to learn, not to dispute. Then, listen to the answers with an open mind. Be curious, non-judgmental.

2. Keep seeking to understand, rather than to retort. Be willing to entertain ideas that are unusual, even alien to you. To help you understand, ask questions that begin with: What? –“What do you think we could do about…….?” How? – “How do you think that will improve the situation?” Why? – “Why do you think that will work?”

3. Listen attentively to the answers. You’re not listening unless you’re learning something. So, silence your “yes, but…..” Stop planning your response. Just keep on listening with an open mind until you can view what the other person is saying from his or her perspective.

4. Seek to find a point of agreement. Even if you’re on opposite ends of the spectrum, there’s almost always something that you can agree on. “Yup, looks like we both agree that politics is a messy business.”

5. Disagree respectfully. To disagree respectfully you must first appreciate the other person’s viewpoint; not just have a buzz word for him (i.e. he’s “a liberal”). You need to grant him some respect (not just write him off as “a moron”). Even if you don’t agree with his line of reasoning or his understanding of the facts, you can have some empathy for his quest (“you’re concerned about “jobs going overseas.”)”**

(Plato and Aristotle picture)


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