I’ve worked with hundreds of the nicest, brightest people in my therapy practice. I’m personally connected to equally wonderful and giving, competent people in my personal life. They have all had rich life experiences and offer thoughtful perspectives.
And nearly everyone I know is absolutely horrible at disagreeing.
I say that with all due love and respect.
We simply aren’t taught how to have meaningful disagreements. I’d like to sum up the two major reasons we blow at this skill and why it absolutely matters that we get better at it.
1. We overvalue winning.
As a culture, we receive lots of messages about winning and losing that we inappropriately and disastrously apply to our lives.
In life, there are no clear winners and losers. In other words, life is not a contest in which you must defeat others in order to “win.” There is no scoreboard, point system, or panel of judges.
There are competitions that utilize these devices and that are appropriate for sports and games. But they just don’t translate to relationships.
The problem is that many of us seem to operate as if relationships are a competitive sports game where a winner will be named and a loser will be disgraced.
No wonder we want, or need, to “win” an argument.
But you don’t win an argument.
There are three possible outcomes when people disagree – (1) they become more connected, (2) they become less connected, or (3) their degree of connection remains the same. Winning a disagreement isn’t an outcome. It’s not possible. It doesn’t exist.
Interpersonal communication is not a sport. It’s about the degree of connection. That’s it.
When you try to win, what you actually lose is connection.
What do you call someone who wins all the arguments? Lonely.
As I like to say, being right doesn’t keep you warm at night.
Every time we treat a disagreement like a contest, we screw the whole thing up, because we don’t know how to stay connected as we express our differences.
And that’s the only way to effectively disagree. To stay connected.
2. We overvalue agreeableness.
For those people who don’t want to engage in the contest of disagreeing, they tend to simply not disagree at all. That’s definitely not a better solution than overvaluing winning.
Why do we opt out of disagreeing when we actually, truly don’t agree?
Because we tend to see disagreement as unlikeable and rude.
I, of course, disagree.
Agreeing just to be agreeable is cheap and easy. It’s also lazy. And it’s certainly not going to bring about any sort of understanding, growth, or productive social change.
Disagreeing, the expression of a different idea or viewpoint, done well, is an act of generosity. It is offering up another way to see the world for another’s consideration.
It’s not being disagreeable for the sake of being a contrarian. It’s letting someone know your thoughts so you both have the opportunity to expand and connect. It’s listening to their thoughts so you can expand.
We are afraid of disagreements because we believe they inevitably cause disconnection and damage to relationships. This is a common but highly untrue myth.
Respectful disagreement actually brings people together. It connects people, not always by building a consensus, but by showing how we all think and act in ways that reflect our lived experience.
Opinions make sense when you hear how people have formed them, and we can see that this opinion-forming is almost never a malicious process. It is often a flawed process, but not an ill-intentioned one. We can come to know each other’s human experience, even if we still disagree with the perspective or opinion.
Talking about our values, perspectives, and strongly held beliefs allows us to be heard and to process what we hear. Receiving feedback that our story is not how someone else sees things gives us a chance to see things more clearly.
We learn that we agree with many people on many things, even when some opinions and perspectives are different.
If we allow ourselves to disagree, we all grow. Every time I’ve sat and talked in depth with someone I didn’t agree with, I’ve learned something valuable.
At the heart of what we find when we disagree is a shared humanity. We truly come to see that there are no fully mean, bad, stupid, horrible “others,” only fellow humans.
We are all just people. People who can support each other’s growth by disagreeing respectfully.
I believe that respectful disagreement can be the humble origin of life-changing and world-changing processes. Just watch the TED talk called "I grew up in the Westboro Baptist Church. Here's why I left." If you are wise enough to influence and be influenced, it's the start of moving the mountains of social change.
It's slow. It's not straightforward. It's one on one, person to person. Do it anyway.
So go forth and invest some time and energy in learning to disagree without sucking at it.
Next week, I’ll outline steps you can take to immediately get better at disagreeing and being more influential, while still being amazingly full of kindness.
Want to talk more? Head on over to our conversation on Facebook and join the Community of Truth Tellers.
I'm Hannah and I teach really nice people-pleasers and conflict-avoiders how to be both big-hearted AND totally badass truth tellers. Ready to speak up with courage? Get your free Confidence Action Plan here!