How to Disagree

Disagreements are bound to happen between any two people sooner or later, be it your friends, partners, colleagues, and so on. It’s a reality of life that none of us are immune to because no two of us are alike, but that’s okay.

We disagree with others for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is because we are different. We come from diverse places, backgrounds, and disciplines and we have different sets of experiences than others. We see the world differently — not as the world is, but as we are. When we open our mouths to describe the world, we are essentially describing ourselves.

We typically disagree with others in one of these ways: Fight-or-flight response, failing to listen to others, or losing sight of the argument and taking it personally when it shouldn’t be. In the process, our relationships are affected. We may give each other silent treatments, cold shoulders, or stop talking to each other altogether as a result, which only makes things worse. Not talking about issues that we care about will not make them go away (!). Sooner or later, those issues tend to become the “elephant in the room”, if you will.

The idea is not to avoid having those conversations (because you can’t), but to do it mindfully and in a way that keeps your relationship intact rather than hurting it. Furthermore, disagreements are less about winning the argument and more about learning each others’ viewpoints to advance a mutual understanding of the situation/issue at hand.

Here are some ideas for how you can handle those disagreements with others.

If and when possible, avoid having the disagreement in the first place. Pick your battles. Not everything is worth arguing about. It shouldn’t matter what the other person says if your relationship is more important to you than the cost of the argument. That is not to say you stay silent and never voice your thoughts, as that wouldn’t be right either (more on that later).

Before you can even disagree with others, you have to be able to understand their point of view, but that is not what we see in most situations. You have to listen, understand, and be empathetic with the other person without feeling the need to agree or disagree with them. In any case, what others care about more is that you understood them and less about whether you agreed or disagreed with them, so listening and understanding others is paramount. Once they feel understood, only then should you share your thoughts about what you think.

Of course, if you try “explaining” things to them before really listening, you would both be vying for each other’s attention and may end up talking over each other, which might lead to a dead end. We can always say that others should be the ones listening to us first, but as we know, we can’t change others, but we can always change ourselves.

Don’t try to be logical in your conversation when the other person is emotionally charged. This is one of the common pitfalls of a conversation going sour. I increasingly notice this between my nephew and his mother. When he is upset about something, his mother asks him logical questions rather than showing him empathy. This approach will never work as rational thought will always lose before emotions. In those situations, you need to be empathetic. You can always be rational later when the conversation turns logical (or when they ask questions), but until that point they are not ready to hear what you have to say. This goes back to listening well.

Before disagreeing with others, know the other person’s argument better than they know it themselves. This is what the best lawyers will do while practicing a case, for instance. I am reminded of what Charlie Munger said about this:

I never allow myself to have an opinion on anything that I don’t know the other side’s argument better than they do.

Disagree with the idea or argument instead of the person so that it doesn’t affect your relationship with them. Realize that you can’t argue with someone’s perspective because you are not in their shoes and you don’t know what it’s like. The best you can do is to be empathetic to their cause and try to feel what they feel.

If or when you find yourself emotionally charged, take some time to cool off before having the conversation. Otherwise, take three slow, deep breaths before continuing. Speak slowly while you stay neutral and focused. You want to remain calm, objective, rational, and yet empathetic during difficult conversations, even when the other person may be high on irrational thinking and behaviors.

One of the problems is we get too attached to our ideas — we hold onto what we believe to be true. This can become problematic in a debate/discussion. I would suggest taking the approach of having strong beliefs that are loosely held. There is nothing wrong with having beliefs about things, as long as you’re open to changing them. That’s how you learn and grow.

During a discussion, find common ground or a shared goal of understanding. Once you have a common goal of where you are headed, then it’s a matter of getting there. Regardless of your disagreements, what is that one thing you can both agree on? Start from there.

Get clarity on the disagreement by getting to the root of the issue. Ask questions like: what’s your real concern here or what outcome were you hoping for? Ask clarifying questions such as, “So you’re saying that…?” to understand others better.

Separate facts from opinions. Use the former if you have them. Your chances of having a constructive disagreement are far higher that way.

It’s easier to disagree with someone and to voice your opinion when you ask for their consent. When they are ready to hear your reasoning, you’ll be more confident with presenting your argument.

Play the devil’s advocate. Argue for and against your idea and have the other person do the same. Then, compare and contrast.

There are times when you learn to disagree with yourself. For instance, when I am writing drafts, I try to consciously make it a point to not only argue for the ideas supporting my argument, but also against them.

Avoid using “Yes, but…” statements or some of their derivatives like “I see your point, but…”. It only communicates you don’t see their point and that you are right and they are wrong.

Stop using statements like “You are wrong” or “what you’re saying is wrong”. Nothing is good or bad, right or wrong. It’s all a matter of perspective. You may see a half-filled glass as half empty, while I might see it as half-full. Who’s to say you are right and I am wrong or vice-versa?

Make it about yourself. Avoid having “You” conversations, and start having “I” conversations. For instance, “I felt hurt when you…” or “I felt less than great when you…”. Making I statements makes it about yourself as opposed to the other person, which does not make the other person defensive. That way no one can argue with your perspective.

Avoid having your disagreements in public space (for you and for others’ sake). Even better, schedule a time and place to have the discussion (if possible).

This one time, my cousin and I were having a mildly heated discussion about something. It didn’t take me long to realize we had vastly differing world views, and it was better that I listened and understood his view rather than try to impose my views on him. At first, I felt compelled to explain why I thought his perspective was “wrong”, but later I realized it was another view point and I needed to move on (since I failed in my efforts to explain my viewpoint) rather than attempt to reconcile his views with my own.

If all else fails, move on. Willingly accept that you both see things differently and that it isn’t always necessary to reconcile things. You can just let them be, in which case you learn to agree to disagree amiably.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that there are plenty of positives that can come from having a healthy discussion, debate, or disagreement when done right.

Seek out people who disagree with your idea or thinking. As it turns out, good disagreement can be central to your progress. It is only by not being able to prove that your partner (or others in your organization) are wrong can you can give them the confidence they need to know they are right. Of course, it’s important to have think-partners who aren’t echo chambers and who are good at having healthy conflicts.

The thing is we are so afraid of having conflicts in our relationships and in our organizations that we run away from them because we don’t know how to constructively manage our thinking. We want to avoid having arguments, avoid potential confrontations because it’s easier to keep the status quo than to challenge it; we might even take pride in our non-confrontational status.

Come to think of it, the best teams in companies like Apple seek out conflicts proactively before they converge on potential products/services, and that’s a good thing.

I wrote in my draft on inversion:

Stop trying to be “successful”; instead, seek out ways to fail. Stop trying to do the “right things” all the time. Focus on things you don’t want to do (to get to the ones you do want) to make your project a success instead of trying to start and do all the right ones.

Executives in organizations frequently work with me not because they need another yes-man (they don’t), but partly because I share alternative views about things that may not be obvious to them but effective nonetheless (and not for the sake of being different, but for the sake of being better).

Disagreements are bound to happen, but it’s up to us to act mindfully in understanding others’ view points and to present our own arguments responsibly. Choose to see the opportunity in every problem to make things better. When we are unable to change our situations, we need to change ourselves.

If left unchecked, disagreements can quickly escalate when your expectations are unmet in relationships (for instance), but when done right, it can make all the difference in making better decisions at work and improving relationships at home.

The way I see it, every disagreement is an opportunity to move things forward (learning, growth, better understanding about things, and/or work-wise) and to improve your relationship with that person.

Just because we disagree with others doesn’t mean we can’t do it in a polite and respectful way. A disagreement shouldn’t come at the cost of your relationship with that person (if it’s important). Disagree with the ideas, not with the person. Be proactive and understanding about others, and strive to understand their perspective.

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