15 Jan 2024

Disagreeing Agreeably

In a world of increasingly polarised positions, political disagreements, extreme convictions and entrenched views, it can seem as if everybody is arguing or locked in heated discussions. Arguments can never be avoided or sidestepped, they’re part of everyday life, but there are ways in which their potential to damage or fracture relationships can be mitigated.

Whether you’re arguing about petty domestic disputes (who’s going to do the washing up, what to have for dinner), locked in gladiatorial combat over a hot political issue, or fighting over business strategy with your colleagues, the techniques to ensure that you disagree agreeably are basically the same.

•Respect other People

At its most basic level, this means giving other people your full attention, listening intently and not interrupting. You may well be feeling fired up and passionate and brimming over with counterarguments and refutations, but you must give the other person the space and time to expound their own point of view.

•Stay Positive

As you listen to the other person, you may be overwhelmed with feelings of anger and negativity, but you will have a much greater impact if you react positively. Practise listening to someone expounding an argument which you totally refute and saying something positive like “you make a very interesting point” or “that’s a fascinating point of view, but I do have one major concern”. You are wrapping your disagreement in a positive response, which effectively defuses the other person’s defensiveness – arguers can become ever more entrenched in their positions if they feel their propositions are being shot down in flames.

•Ask Questions

Instead of hitting back with a passionate counterarguments, try the technique of asking gentle, probing questions. It will gradually become clear that you are interrogating a position and do not entirely agree with it, but it will also become apparent that you are seeking to find common ground and in-depth answers.

•Don’t Harangue

It’s no good sitting quietly, waiting for someone to present their point of view, then simply ignore everything they’ve said before embarking on a prolonged attack. Adopting a purely oppositional stance, with no concessions to the other side, will make them defensive and obstinate and there is no chance of reaching resolution.

•Reiterate

One of the main factors that can turn arguments sour or even volatile is the feeling that both sides are not listening to each other, but are merely rehearsing their own arguments, often at increasing volume. It is really helpful, therefore, to re-state the opposition viewpoint and to prove that you have been listening intelligently, which means saying something like “So if I understand correctly, you’re saying that we are incapable of reaching that target and that it is therefore an unreasonable aspiration?”

•Reframe

We’ve all been involved in arguments that have become bogged down in entrenched positions and endless repetitions. This is entirely non-productive, and if you find yourself stuck, a good way out is to reframe the topic, which means suggesting that it is looked at from a different perspective, perhaps as part of a broader issue, or as an example of a whole suite of recurrent disagreements. Looking at the areas of contention from a different angle can sometimes point to new solutions.

•Stay Polite

Arguments can become truly disagreeable when participants become stressed, provoked and angry. At this point, they may well lose their inhibitions and become alarmingly aggressive or even resort to personal insults and put-downs. No argument should ever be allowed to reach this point and remembering to stay polite is the best defence against excessive volatility. This can be something as simple as saying “Thank you for taking the time to explain your point of view” or “I’d be very grateful if you could explain what you mean” or “I apologise if it sounds like I was making assumptions”. These phrases may sound excessively flowery, but they are excellent ways of disarming the opposition and de-escalating the dispute.

•Persuade

Above all, it’s not so much about what you say, but how you say it. If you disagree profoundly with someone, coming at them with all guns blazing will put them on the back foot and may well make them dig in. Asking questions, presenting evidence, gently challenging assumptions, recognising their point of view – these are all techniques that may well win them over to your point of view.

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