Disagreeing with People

disagreeing with people Meg-John and Justin Podcast

In this episode we chatted about disagreeing with people. Firstly we talked about the differences between disagreements and challenging prejudice. Then we chatted about how to disagree with people, why disagree, when to disagree, and when it’s okay to not argue with someone.

First we spoke about the difference between challenging someone and disagreeing with someone. Challenging is when someone saying that something that is harmful, offensive, or makes other people feel less safe. Disagreement is when people have different opinions, views, or values which don’t have a directly harmful impact in the current situation (although whether they are harmful more widely may be part of the disagreement).

Challenging and disagreeing need dealing with differently. The distinction is related to the one between abuse and conflict. Abuse involves some degree of using power over someone to cause harm, whereas conflict is a more equal disagreement, although there is probably a spectrum of situations which fall somewhere between the two. It’s useful to start by discerning between the challenging and disagreeing, and clarifying which situation you’re in.

In this podcast we focused on disagreements. Regarding situations of challenging we said that if someone is being prejudicial, oppressing you, or making you unsafe it isn’t on you to do the work. You can just leave, or ask someone else to do the work. 

While challenging occurs in situations where someone’s behaviour is not okay, disagreements are okay – and inevitable. Conflict intimacy is the kind of intimacy we build by being able to have disagreements with people while still valuing them – and ourselves – rather than falling into blame or shame. 

Ideally in disagreements it’s great if we can be curious and empathetic towards the other person – really listening to what they’re saying – not immediately building our own argument.

As with sex it’s useful to move from a goal-focused to a process-focused approach. If we enter disagreements in order to win then we probably won’t learn much, and we may well cause some harm to the other person or our relationship. If we can enter into it in order to learn and build intimacy, and with an openness towards the other person and where they’re coming from, it’s likely to go better for everyone, and probably the other person will be more able to hear our position than if we’re trying to win.

Before getting too far into a disagreement it’s good to ask yourself whether you – and the other person – are disagreeing in good or bad faith. It’s generally not worth engaging if someone is disagreeing in order to: hurt you, big themselves up, win, belittle you, or play ‘devil’s advocate’. It’s good to be boundaried about not getting into bad faith disagreements. Perhaps we can learn to tune into the feelings we have when somebody else – or ourselves – is slipping into bad faith.

It’s also great to talk in advance about groundrules, having a meta conversation about how people like to disagree. For example if one person enjoys a heated debate, but the other hates them, perhaps it’s worth avoiding getting into that kind of conversation – or agreeing on a different way to do them. 

It’s also worth checking the intensity of topic for the different people involved. If one person is very emotionally invested, whereas it’s a fun hypothetical for the other person, that can also cause issues.

Any time a disagreement feels tough for anyone it can be good to shift from content to process: What’s happening here? What’s the dynamic? How is everyone feeling?

Finally it’s good to ask whether we know enough up front. Who actually has the most knowledge here? If you actually know way less on a topic than the other person, then perhaps education is more useful than disagreement – be up for learning from them or going away and learning yourself before getting into it. Similarly you might be boundaried around not getting into disagreements with people where they don’t acknowledge that you have way more expertise than they do on something.

Disagreements are not necessarily about finding the middle ground. It’s worth remembering that there are various possible outcomes: One may move towards the other (in either direction), you may find a middle ground or compromise position, you may agree to differ, it may be an ongoing tension return to, and you may decide the relationship needs to end or change, for example if there is a big value difference. 

Non-binary thinking is useful here, moving beyond a win/lose binary and towards open curiosity. Are we informing each other and learning about each others’ positions? Social psychologist Kenneth Gergen recommended asking the following questions in situations of major disagreement? What do we have in common (in other areas than this)? Where are we coming from – what does this issue mean to us personally? What are our areas of doubt and uncertainty on this topic?

If it doesn’t feel safe enough to have this particular disagreement it can be good to decide just not to engage on this topic between you, or to bring in a structure for the disagreement (e.g. giving each person 5-10 minutes to talk about it and just be listened to by the other, with an agreed process for reflecting back), or to bring in somebody to hold the space and/or mediate/facilitate.