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From the School of Hard Knocks: How To Disagree Well

I’ve made a lot of mistakes when discussing, debating, and disagreeing with people. I’ve failed to listen well, hurt feelings, and flat-out falsely accused them. I’m not proud of that.

'Disagreement' photo (c) 2011, Michael Coghlan - license:

I want to learn from those mistakes and do better, so I started thinking last week about what those mistakes have taught me. I share them here to put them all in one place, remind myself, and get your input.

  1. Assume the intelligence and integrity of those listening/reading and those with whom you disagree.

    Treat them with respect, remembering that they are real people with real feelings. When someone lashes out, remind yourself that they are acting out on very real pain they’ve felt. It is probably not personal to you – you’re just the one on the receiving end.

  2. Never assume that you agree on what a specific word means.

    Definitions are critical – you cannot have a real discussion until you agree on what terms you will use and until you agree on their meanings. For example, if I mean “according to the Reformed Southern Baptist tradition” when I say “biblical” and you mean “of or pertaining to the Bible” when you say it, we’re going to hit our heads against that wall and go round and round. You need to know that I have a very specific and narrow definition of that word, I need to know that you don’t in order for us to have a meaningful conversation.

  3. State the facts of your position on the issue fairly, clearly, and without exaggeration.

    Be sure they are indeed facts. Be careful not to overstate claims or gloss over weaknesses.

  4. State the facts of other positions on the issue fairly, clearly, without exaggeration, and without over-simplifying.

    Be sure they are indeed facts. Be careful not to overstate weaknesses or gloss over strengths.

  5. Allow fair comparisons between the positions, resisting the temptation to gloss over or overstate things to your own advantage.

    Remember point #1 – assume the intelligence and integrity of those who hold other positions and remind yourself that nothing is a slam-dunk.

  6. Be vigilant and guard against reading into what someone says or writes.

    Do not find or assign motives – to do so is to accuse someone falsely and dishonors God.

  7. Listen carefully to those with whom you disagree.

    Acknowledge the good points they make, and let them correct your misunderstanding of their position. Make a genuine effort to understand their position and why they think it’s best. This will help you respect them as people and they will respect you as well.

  8. Do not make sweeping generalizations about those who hold to a particular view, lumping them all together without regard for nuance or a spectrum of belief or practice.

    They will hear this as a personal attack on themselves, especially if your generalization is an inaccurate description of them. Remember: if you are unfairly characterizing someone, you are falsely accusing them.

  9. Ask questions instead of making statements or accusations.

    Say “Do you ____?” instead of “You ____!”

  10. When talking about the negatives of a given position, express them as concerns, not hard-and-fast rules.

    Say “I’m concerned that if we go this direction, this will happen” instead of “If we do this, this will happen!”

  11. Use words like like, could, may, might, I think, I’ve seen, it looks like, some, sometimes, seems, appears when describing the consequences of a position.

    This allows for the possibility that you may have misunderstood or misinterpreted, or that what you saw is an exception, not the rule.

  12. Admit the weaknesses of your position, the cons, and the remaining questions.

    Be real about it – nothing is a slam-dunk. Everything is more complicated and nuanced once we really dig into it. Explain why you took the position and why it’s most appealing to you, despite its weaknesses. It’s ok to compare and contrast, and even say “it’s the lesser of two evils.” In doing so, you present yourself as humble, open to listening and learning, and acknowledging that others can disagree without chucking reason and morality to the wind.

  13. When communicating your own conclusions, make it personal.

    Say “Therefore I think this is the best option for me,” not global: “This is how we all should do this, and if you don’t, you’re a traitor.” Leave the decision up to each reader or listener instead of manipulating, piling on guilt, or accusing them of immorality if they choose differently than you.

  14. Most important: don’t spout off angry.

    Give yourself time to cool down. Look carefully at what they really wrote, or listen to what they really said. Pray and try to figure out what specifically angered you. Then respond with care, remembering they are a person with feelings.

What do you think? What am I missing? What have you found helps keep a disagreement respectful, civil, and productive?


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