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The Art of Disagreement


By Linda Sapadin, Ph.D

“So you’re telling me you think that all of our country’s problems can be traced back to what Obama did wrong?” Fred asked - his arms tightly folded across his chest.

“I didn’t say that,” Bert responded, tapping his chest. “If Obama wasn’t in office though, we wouldn’t be facing half the problems we’re facing today, like so many jobs going overseas.”

“Like that’s Obama’s fault?” Fred responded, shaking his head in disbelief.

“Like yes! What are you a commie? Don’t you see what all these liberals have done?”

“Right now, I only see one thing. And that’s what a moron you are!”

Imagine where this “conversation” is going! No surprise that Fred and Bert’s relationship has zipped downhill, despite their friendship being decades old.

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???

In contrast, disagreeing respectfully is so much harder. And we rarely, if ever, are taught how to do so. Moreover, in the heat of an argument, it’s not a gut feeling; thus it doesn’t happen naturally.

So, if you see the value in learning how to respectfully disagree, read on. This skill applies not only to political disagreements but also to disagreements on all topics.

  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.
  2. Keep seeking to understand, not to retort. Be willing to entertain ideas that are unusual, even alien to you.
  3. Ask questions that begin with:
    • What? –“What do you think we should do about…….?”
    • How? - “How do you think that will improve the situation?”
    • Why? –“Would you please explain why you think that’s a better approach to the problem?”
  4. Listen to the answers. Truly listen. You’re not listening unless you’re learning something. So, silence your “yes, but…..” Stop planning your retort. Just keep on listening with an open mind until you can view what the other person is saying in a different light.
  5. Seek to find a point of agreement. Even if you’re on opposite ends of the spectrum, there’s usually something that you can agree on. “Yup, looks like we both agree that politics is a messy business.”
  6. Disagree respectfully. To disagree respectfully you must first understand the other person’s viewpoint; not just have a buzz word for him (he’s “a liberal”). You need to grant him some respect (not just write him off as “a moron”). Even if you don’t understand 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.”)

Our country has gotten so polarized that we cannot even speak to people with different politics with anything approaching respect. If we trash rather than listen to those who disagree with us, how are we ever going to get along or search for solutions to the problems we face?

So, how about starting now. At home. Open up a conversation with your kid who disagrees with you about so many things. Employ the six points above. Notice at the end of the conversation if you and your teen feel more kindly to each other.

Now, try the 6 steps with someone you disagree with politically. I don’t expect you to end up being kissing cousins after your conversation but I do hope that you might have a better understanding of the other person’s viewpoint and perhaps even find some middle ground that you both agree on.

Here’s to becoming more skilled at the art of disagreement!

Copyright © 2017: Linda Sapadin, Ph.D
Linda Sapadin is a psychologist and personal coach in private practice who specializes in helping people enrich their lives, enhance their relationships and overcome self-defeating patterns of behavior. For more information about her work, contact her by email or visit her website at PsychWisdom.
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