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Normalizing Healthy Disagreement

[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]

I knew someone once who was not a friend but not not a friend, and they happened to disagree with something I believed. As far as political leanings, I skew heavily left. Left-leaning policies (I believe) are better for workers and better for humans. As far as social issues go, I sort of resent their ability to divide people and parties with such blatant aggression, but here we are. It's 2022 and everyone has done or said some distasteful things, only now, we're all persecuting each other for it. Socially, I skew left as well. I generally don't care what you do so long as you're not bothering me, but I also dislike the general attitude of victimhood and woe-is-me-ism that seems to penetrate our collective psyche. A good way to gain attention and sympathy is to paint yourself as a victim, but that story has been told and retold so many times it's worn quite thin.

So anyway, I had this friend-who-wasn't-really-my-friend who disagreed with something I believed and they have more or less annexed me from their life. It's not much of a loss, because I realized what I was losing was someone who wouldn't (or maybe, couldn't) care anyway. What really annoys and saddens me though, is the propensity for people to end relationships or even try to end careers over relatively minor disagreements. I might believe in a woman's right to choose and aggressively defend free speech. I don't think any civilian on this planet aught to own a semi-automatic rifle. And I don't care who you love or who you sleep with so long as your relationship is safe and consenting. If you happen to disagree with any of this, I'm happy to talk and I'm more than open to my mind being changed.

Since time immemorial, older people have looked at the younger generation and thrown their hands up in disgust, "This generation is doomed," our elders seem to always tell us. Maybe one day I'll be one of the elderly people consistently disgusted by youth, but I sure as hell hope not. "Nobody knows how to disagree anymore," one of my old(er) friends told me, before launching into a soliloquy about drinking from the garden hose and playing outside beneath street lights.

Maybe we are doomed, I thought. Or maybe people have never been very good at disagreeing in the first place. I'm positive it can be done though. Whenever I disagree with someone, I ask myself two questions:

  1. Is our disagreement major or minor? If you consider every disagreement major, the problem is probably you. I consider minor disagreements anything that does not involve an attack against me personally or humanity at large. What you consider major or minor might be different.

  2. Do I love and/or respect this person? If so, then our disagreement is probably not worth burning a bridge over. If not, why do I care if they disagree in the first place

If you're uncomfortable with conflict, you may never be able to get to the stage of discussing a difference. But if you do, here are some things to keep in mind.

Do: Calmly explain your point of view.

Don't: Resort to raising your voice or denigrating the other person.

Do: Allow the other person to speak.

Don't: State your opinions as facts.

Do: Have an open mind.

Don't: Condemn the other person.

Do: Remind them that you care about them.

Here is an amalgamation of tips on how to respectfully disagree with someone:

1. Focus on Facts

Someone probably cares about your feelings, but most people don't. The most compelling arguments prioritize facts over emotions. For example, if you were disagreeing with your partner over where to buy a house, they would be more compelled by facts (price, location, square footage, condition, etc.) than by how you felt about a certain structure.

2. Don't Get Personal

You've probably seen a Facebook argument descend into personal attacks and name calling. It's not only destructive, but a huge waste of time and totally unconvincing. Influencing others requires integrity, and that immediately goes by the wayside if you resort to personal attacks.

3. Recognize the Good in the Other Person

This points back to my original question: do you love and/or respect the person you're disagreeing with? Remember that everyone is human and makes mistakes. Try to see their point of view and how they may have arrived at their beliefs.

4. Listen

A lot of us don't really listen, but fall into a pattern of waiting to speak. What good is conversation if you're not internalizing what someone else has to say? Active listening will help you understand the other person and will help you take the conversation to a logical resolution.

5. Don't Accuse

Instead of saying, "You always wait until the last minute." Say, "It really makes me anxious that you wait until the last minute. Can we try to do this earlier next time?" Nobody likes to be accused of anything, especially if they think they did nothing wrong. Don't sugarcoat what you have to say, but soften your language enough to be well received.

6. Know When to Stop the Discussion

Sometimes it might behoove you to agree to disagree. Some people are incapable of having a respectful discussion and the only person you can control is you. So do your best to be respectful, and if you need to, respect yourself by walking away.

P.S. Read about how to disagree at work here, watch this video about how to disagree respectfully here, or watch this Bill Burr stand-up bit on arguing here.


Sarah Rose

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