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How to Disagree, Respectfully

by Nora Mattson

I know that I am right. Or rather, I feel that I am right. But really… I feel like I know I’m right. That feeling is pretty common because you would have only entered into a disagreement with someone in the first place if you believed that your rightness was somehow more right than your opponent’s. You believe that your worldview is more complete and nuanced than theirs. So to feel that you are right is to be right, at least to yourself, because you are the only person evaluating yourself. This belief becomes dangerous in situations where public sentiment, or at least perceived public sentiment, is valued more heavily than facts. But even facts themselves lack objectivity. Everything that we present to the world is influenced by our own set of a million unconscious biases.

So how do we solve this? When friends and loved ones disagree it can be easy to become entrenched in a difficult and damaging argument. At the same time, it is good to have things you believe in regardless of what others think. It is easy to suggest that you must distance yourself emotionally from what you are arguing about, but that’s easier said than done since often the situations that the most polarizing and controversial topics are the ones which we feel the most involved in emotionally. So there is no simple answer.

Often, finding the balance between being respectful and being true to yourself has to do with what the people involved are accustomed to and comfortable with. I recently found myself in a heated political debate with my mother. My friend who was there was shocked and reprimanded me for disagreeing. But for me and my mother such an interaction was not weird or unwelcome. We both knew that our viewpoints differed, but also understood and respected that the other person cared about both the issue we were discussing and the opinion of the other. Sure, the disagreement itself was far from fun, but seeing an issue in different ways and being passionate about them was not at all negative for our relationship. Of course, not every time that you argue with someone that you care about will you be particularly experienced in how to interact with them. I think that you are allowed to be invested or passionate just as much as you are allowed to have a purely intellectual discussion as long as you both understand that the objective is not to be right, but to inform the other person, or to support your way of thinking.

This way of thinking is not so simple in practice. I too often hope for a sense of victory at the conclusion of an argument which does not really facilitate healthy discussion. If you disagree fundamentally with someone that you care about, you do not have to give up your passion or concern for an issue. You do, however, have to give up winning.

Commentary by Bernice Arricale

It is not too surprising that Nora is able to keep her mother’s humanity in sight even during a deep disagreement, but one gets the feeling that she might be able to use this muscle to guide her in discussions with those outside her family as well. Logical arguments alone rarely create converts. How can considering an opponents emotional life help create pathways to discussion that feel positive and beneficial, even if you have to give up winning?