Do You Know How to Disagree with Someone?

3 min read
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“I hear America singing,” Walt Whitman once wrote, in an earlier, more optimistic age.

But that open spirit of optimism has eroded. Hope has become tarnished. Our country is now polarized, and we are singing different songs in dissonant keys. The sound of America today is a cacophony.

What can we do about It?

Some of the most important work in resolving conflict has been done at Harvard University, in the Harvard Negotiation Project. Two of its classics in the field are Getting to Yes by professors Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton and Difficult Conversations by professors Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen.

Early in my own mediation career I went to South Africa for a conflict-resolution immersion experience. While I was there, I met with members of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The current crisis we face in America is not so much about disagreements over specific issues. Instead it is a conflict between two opposing cultures or world views. “Our side” vs. “Their side.”

Here is a strategy for how to have a conversation with someone from “the other side” and move beyond the initial anger and conflict to an ongoing, creative, friendly disagreement. It involves six steps:

1. In a friendly way acknowledge that you both have very different views.

2. Say that you have a strong respect for the other person and that you know that she has good reasons for thinking the way she does. (Important!)

3. Ask her to help you understand why she believes the things she does. In a very friendly way, ask her to tell you the things that led her to think the way she does. A key phrase to say: “Help me understand…” Say to her, “Maybe I just missed something along the way.” Be clearly open to her explanation!

4. As she explains her viewpoint, she may say things that seem preposterous to you, but don’t react in any way negatively. Feel free to ask questions as she explains her view. But the questions are not challenges. You are seeking clarification and understanding. You genuinely want to understand how she feels and believes the way she does! It is important to clearly convey this.

In this informational stage, it is important not to disagree or give any negative response to anything she says. The key here is that you are working to build a better relationship. So you don’t want to inject any negativity or criticism.

5. When she has concluded her explanation of how she arrived at her viewpoint, thank her for her honesty and sharing. Acknowledge that you know it is difficult to share viewpoints with people who may not agree with them. Tell her how much you appreciate her willingness to do so and that you have a great respect for her.

6. Indicate in a very friendly way that that you aren’t necessarily persuaded that you should change your views. But acknowledge that we are all in process, and we always need to learn new things and grow and change. And tell her that she has given you much to think about and consider.

Follow this six-point strategy when you are trying to start or build on a relationship with someone you disagree with. It’s tough to do, especially when the other side is saying things that seem bizarre and outrageous.

But the conversation is important, something we all need to have if we are going to move our country from polarization to transformation.

Walt Whitman will be listening.

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