Wednesday, July 13, 2011

How To Disagree

      I often find myself in disagreements.  Maybe it's because I'm a disagreeable person, I'm not sure.  But over many years I have found that there are basic principles that are helpful in conversations in which we disagree, whether face to face or on the internet.  While I don't always follow all of these principles, I think that our discussions would go better if I, and all the rest of us, could follow these basic guidelines when disagreeing.

           Expect disagreement
No matter how much we may agree with each other, disagreement will happen.  This is not a bad thing.  If we disagree, we can discuss issues and come up with a better solution.  What is problematic is when the disagreement is completely unexpected or comes from a position we consider illogical or immoral.  There are times that we will be hurt by the fact that someone we otherwise respect we disagree with in an important issue.  However, we must be careful not to let that hurt or anger at a position determine our response.

 Listen to understand the other person’s position
We may want to listen to other’s point of view in order to find specifics to undermine it.  What is more important is that we understand what the other person is saying.  If we begin the conversation as an attack, then we won’t even know what exactly we are attacking, and many of our counter-arguments will not actually be about the other person’s point of view at all.  We must be careful to know their position before we even begin a response.  This might mean we will need to ask questions to have them clarify their point of view.

Look for the ideas  you can agree with
If someone disagrees with you, this doesn’t mean that there are no areas of agreement in the broader realm of the subject.  Look for the areas of agreement.  Those areas of agreement can be mentioned to soften the blow of the clear disagreement.  Also, the areas of agreement can be used later to discuss another way of looking at the whole problem, a point of view which both parties might agree with.

 Never insult or demean the other person or their belief system
Just because they disagree with you, your logic or your moral ideas does not make the other person bad, illogical or immoral, and they should not be treated as such.  Do not bring in false conclusions to their point of view—you can be concerned about the implications, but don’t assume that they will happen.  Never use insulting language.  Do not demean their character, nor demean the sources of their belief system.  That will only increase anger, not discussion.  And it certainly will not create agreement.

Try to respond with clarity
When you respond to the other person’s position, be sure to be clear how your points relate to theirs.  If you have an opposite viewpoint, make it clear, along with your reasons. Don’t keep repeating your point again and again.   Be sure whatever examples or stories you use are clear and pertinent.  Carefully use your language so it doesn’t make the wrong point.  On the internet, use emoticons to express what we might do with tone or facial expression, such as sarcasm or a joke.  It might be good to bring the other person along with you.  Speak about mutual goals and how your position is more likely to achieve those goals.

Give them an opportunity to respond in respect
Disagreement should be a conversation, not a monologue.  So this means we should hope and expect responses.  If the responses are insulting or hateful, then the conversation is over, because anger is the far most likely response to anger.  But we should give an opportunity for the one we disagree with to respond and for us to come up with a reasonable response to them.

If the disagreement becomes unproductive, it is time to stop
Any of us, at times, can have our emotions carry us where we are no longer productive.  So if a disagreement becomes uncontrolled or polarized, it is time to end the discussion.  Perhaps the conversation can be taken up another time, but it is not worth hurting each other for the sake of a point.  Perhaps one of the parties can see the heat of the argument, back up and cool things down.  This can be done with humor, or with a sincere apology.  But if cooling down doesn’t work, it might be time to back up and try again another day.

 The goal is not agreement or convincing, but love
In a disagreement, if the purpose of both parties is to prove they are right, then there is no convincing either side—for this reason debates don’t work because they create deepening polarization, so no real solution can be found.  But often a disagreement cannot find agreement between the opposing parties.  Even if they are looking for some kind of agreement, it cannot be found.  So, rather than create false expectations for those involved, the goal of the disagreement must be love.   We want to love our opponent by giving them respect.  We want to love those listening to us by responding fairly and clearly.  And we want the goal of our positions to be about love: love of others, love of the poor, love of nature, love of God—whatever the subject may be.  We need to remember that if it is important enough to have strong disagreement, the purpose must be to benefit someone.  If there is no benefit, then perhaps the disagreement isn’t worth having.


CarolMC said...

Really love your thought process - saturated with authentic spirituality.
Think there might be a typo in the second sentence, though. Think you meant to say "basic principles that are helpful in conversations in which we [dis]agree," where the [dis] is missing.
Feel somewhat overcome with fear that while I agree with all you say, both here and on your site, I'm not living up to it, and doubt my own sincerity in saying I wish to.

Steve Kimes said...

"I doubt my own sincerity in saying I wish to." That's very honest. I think that it is our motivation that should be renewed before our actions. Prayer is a powerful agent of change.

Thanks for noting my error. Fixing now.