Episode #23: How to Disagree Constructively

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Disagreement is fascinating to me. I spend a surprising amount of time studying and thinking about apparent disagreements between schools of thought in personal development, philosophy, nutrition, and politics.

I find it especially interesting when two people, both of whose viewpoints I respect, disagree with one another. Odd as it may seem, some of my favorite content to consume is real time discussions between people who disagree on a topic. This is partly because I’m philosophically interested in learning about different perspectives and partly because it’s just good entertainment.

The value of disagreement

Disagreeing can be frustrating but there can also be great value in it. When you disagree with someone — whether it be in a relationship or a political discussion — instead of digging in your heels and defending your position at all costs, you can use it as an opportunity to gain a better understanding of your interlocutor’s point of view. When my wife and I disagree constructively, we come away with a better understanding of how the other person sees some aspect of the world or our relationship.

But of course, this is rarely easy to do. In this post, I’ll discuss four obstacles that keep us from disagreeing constructively, along with several strategies for overcoming them.

Not seeking to understand the other person’s point of view.

In order to make progress in a disagreement, you first must take the time to understand the viewpoint of those with whom you disagree. Of course, this is easier said than done.

The overarching principle here is this: Seek first to understand, then to be understood. This specific phrasing is from the classic personal development book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which has had a profound impact on the way I think ever since I first read it in high school.

A quote that helps me maintain this attitude and mindset is one that I picked up from Grateful Dead lyricist and essayist, John Perry Barlow. I recommend searing this advice into your memory:

Never assume the motives of others are, to them, less noble than yours are to you.

Translation: Nobody truly wants to be an asshole. More accurately, very few people want to be assholes.

Most people are just as sincere about their point of view as you are about yours. Assume the other person’s reasons for their views are just as valid as your reasons for your views. Then make it your job to understand those reasons. Be genuinely curious about how they think. This applies just as much to arguments in interpersonal relationships as it does to societal disagreements.

Flawed thinking

Failing to give people the benefit of the doubt in this way is a cognitive bias known as the Fundamental Attribution Error. This is where you attribute other people’s flaws or incongruities to intrinsic factors (i.e. they are evil, ignorant, etc), while attributing your own flaws to external factors that are outside of your control (I didn’t have enough information, I was misled, etc).

If you fall into this kind of thinking, you will write off anyone who disagrees with you as having having malicious motives or being fundamentally flawed in some way. This is a dangerous place to be. You delude yourself into thinking you are right and anyone who disagrees with you is wrong (or at least misguided in some way). Combine this with confirmation bias and you have a recipe for absolute dogmatism.

A book that has been foundational in helping me understand the psychological nature of the disagreement and differences in moral reasoning is called The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. One of the key takeaways in that book for me is understanding the different moral foundations that people use to construct their worldview.

Of course, the paradox of understanding “the other side” is that we begin to see them less as the other side because we understand more about where they’re coming from. They become less like opponents and more like teammates.

Don’t Attack The Straw Man

One of the most common obstacles to understanding the other side of an argument is the habit of straw manning the other person’s argument. Even if you’ve never heard the term straw manning before, you’ve probably done it at some point. It’s when someone presents an argument or viewpoint and instead of addressing the real issue, you dumb-down their argument and attack the weakest version of it.

Here’s a simple example of straw manning that often happens in a child-parent relationship:

Child: Can I go to this concert?

Parent: No, it’s too far away.

Child: But all my friends are going!

Parent: If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you jump off a bridge, too?

The child’s true argument isn’t that he wants to blindly follow his friends anywhere they go. It’s that, by not being allowed to go to the concert, he would feel left out and not part of the group. Of course, he didn’t do a great job of presenting his emotional reasoning, so it’s easy to attack a the straw man here. (By the way, I’m not giving parenting advice here. I’m just illustrating what a straw man looks like).

This strategy may be clever, but it’s not wise. It’s not intellectually honest either. You’re not interacting with the credible version of the other person’s argument. You’re interacting with a caricature of their side of the story. By doing this, you may win the battle but you will lose the war. In your interpersonal relationships, people will grow to resent you over time. In the long run, you are shooting yourself in the foot.

Make The Other Person Feel Heard

Resist the temptation to attack the straw man. Instead, demonstrate to the person you’re arguing with that you truly understand their side. Instead of immediately discrediting the other person’s views and stating your own perspective, listen to their argument and then rephrase it in your own words to show you understand. This is not easy. The other person may be emotional and might even attack you personally. But doing this step will calm them down.

After they explain their side, say something like:

“So, let me make sure I understand you correctly. You’re saying that....”

Once you summarize their side of the argument, ask them if you got it right. Then, be quiet and see what they say.

They may correct you and say something like, “No, that’s not what I said…” This is a good thing. If they do this, listen to their corrections and then make another attempt to paraphrase their argument. Do this until they agree with your rephrasing.

Here’s the key to this whole process: Only when they agree to your phrasing of their argument should you begin to state your side. If you try to state your side before they believe you care about their side, you will only exacerbate the fight and cause them to dig their heels in even further.

Act In Good Faith

It’s important to remember that you’re not trying to change the content of their argument or twist their words here. The two main objectives with this method are to genuinely understand where the other person is coming from and then showing her that you understand where she’s coming from. People just want to feel heard.

They key is to do this in good faith -- that is to say, with honesty and sincerity of intention. You need to have a genuine desire to understand the other person’s perspective. If you use this strategy in an attempt to “win” the argument, your words will drip with condescension and contempt. This will have the opposite effect that you want.

Steel Manning

There’s another strategy that’s possibly even more powerful than rephrasing the other person’s argument. It involves going one step beyond simply understanding your opponent's argument and actively helping them to construct the strongest, most credible version of their argument and then interacting with that. This is the opposite of straw manning, aptly called steel manning.

This is where it comes in handy to be genuinely curious about how your opponent thinks. In order to steel man you must first understand your opponent’s argument.

How would your arguments improve if you not only showed you understood your partner but helped him build the strongest version of his side of the story? This will help you stand in her shoes and see things even more clearly from her perspective.

Vanessa recently steel-manned a complaint I had about her not commenting fast enough after reading the final draft of this blog post. Here’s how the interaction went:

ME: (After Vanessa finished reading my draft and some time had passed). I don’t like when you don’t respond right away after you finish reading my draft.
VANESSA: Oh, I see. So when I do that, does it makes you feel like I don’t like your writing?
ME: Yes, actually it does.
VANESSA: And it makes you feel unsettled and vulnerable?
ME: Exactly!
VANESSA: That makes sense. I was just thinking through the part you asked me to edit. I’ll make sure I don’t leave you hanging next time.

What’s amazing about this interaction is that she was perceptive enough to understand what was truly bothering me about the situation. Not only that, but she articulated it more effectively than I did. She could have easily responded defensively and said something like, “So, what -- I can’t take a few minutes to think about what you’ve written?” But that would have only made me more defensive because my problem wasn’t addressed. People just want to feel heard

Practical Reasons to do This

Beyond just being a good listener an reasonable human being, there are practical and even selfish reasons to make the effort to understand other people’s wacky perspectives.

It makes your argument stronger

Cutting yourself off from other perspectives makes you intellectually weak because you don’t know how your interlocutor thinks. Although it might feel good to not have your viewpoints threatened, it does nothing to resolve a disagreement. This is true in political discussions as well as in less serious, everyday matters. Even if your goal is to “defeat” your opponent -- which I don’t recommend -- you still can not do that without first studying them and getting to know their true motives.

Law #18 in The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene states: “Do not build fortresses to protect yourself. Isolation is dangerous.” This applies to physical battle just as it does to intellectual disagreement.

This is especially true when it comes to political disagreements. If you don’t know how the other side thinks and why they think how they think, there can be no chance of resolving disagreement or transcending ideological differences.

It will help others understand you better

When you know how the other person perceives the situation and what’s important to them, you will be able to tailor the explanation of your own views so that it connects with their mental map of the situation. This will help them be more receptive to your views and, ultimately, to understand your side better. In other words, understanding the other person’s views will ultimately help you more effectively articulate your own.

It will improve your relationships

There’s an old saying, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Show people that you mean well and your disagreements will no longer be obstacles to connection but opportunities to strengthen your relationships.

It will help solve disagreements more effectively.

The truth is, listening works, plain and simple. As difficult as this method is, it’s also the most effective. This is a genuine case of “the obstacle is the way” (which is also the title of an excellent book by Ryan Holiday, who I’ve had on the podcast).

Reality check

If you are sitting there saying to yourself, “I agree with you Ruben - other people definitely need to take time to understand my viewpoints,” then you are missing the point. It can not be dependent on other people. You have to do it first. You need to take responsibility for gaining clarity in the argument. If everyone took personal responsibility for understanding those with whom they disagree, imagine what the world would look like.

Make no mistake, seeking to understand others is a skill you must practice and develop over time.

Making the disagreement personal.

When we attach our identity to a mental position and then that mental position is attacked, we feel that we are being attacked. Of course, our true identity cannot be contained in a mental position. The illusion that it can is the source of what some spiritual teachers call the ego. When ideas that we perceive to be part of who we are become threatened, we fervently defend those ideas as if our life depended on it. Indeed, the life of our ego does depend on it.

Separate yourself mentally from your beliefs and views. They are not actually who you are. On a deep level, you are not your beliefs, opinions, etc. You might ask, then who am I? You are that which is aware of your thoughts. You are the consciousness surrounding your beliefs and opinions. You are the space in which these things exist. You are the one who perceives them.

If this concept sounds wacky to you, you’re not alone. This is a fairly deep spiritual concept and, although learned it years ago, I'm just now beginning to understand the profound implications of it. Meditate on this idea a bit and you might gain some clarity. I also recommend reading The Power of Now and A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle for in-depth explanations about this concept.

The main takeaway here is that you can still have opinions, they just don’t need to be bound up in your identity -- in your conception of who you are. They don’t need to be personal. Get to the point where you can say, “There is the belief and here I am, observing the belief.”

Another problem with identifying with your thoughts and beliefs is that if, at some point, you realize that you are, in fact, wrong about something, it’s extremely difficult to change your position. “Who are you if not your thoughts and your opinions?” your ego asks. You become trapped. This is why most people who have built their careers on a particular dogma have no incentive to change their minds about it.

When I was in my late teens/early twenties, I changed my beliefs and behaviors in relation to how I ate literally overnight. I was trying to cure my acne and ended up stumbling on internet forums and websites that explained how bread, sugar, dairy and highly processed foods were contributing to my pimples. At the time, these kind of foods were staples in my diet. But as soon as I learned that avoiding them could help clear up my skin, I cut them out of my diet immediately. I barely gave it any thought. Looking back on this experience, I realize that had the advantage of not having a huge emotional attachment to food and also being young enough to where I wasn’t yet set in my ways. I hadn’t made food a part of my identity.

Not questioning your own beliefs or views.

Here’s a thought that might help you be less attached to your mental positions: You may not know as much as you think you do. Is it possible you could be wrong in your views, or at least not considering the whole picture? A mantra I’ve cultivated over the years is: Be open to being wrong. I’ve learned time and time again that when I stubbornly think I have something all figured out, the universe has a “funny” way of showing me that, in fact, I do not.

This reminds me of the story about Socrates being unwilling to accept that he was the wisest person in Athens. He approached as many people as he could in the town square and asked them why they held certain common beliefs or opinions. To his surprise, not one person could give him an intelligible response. Most people believed their opinions to be facts and had never questioned them or seriously considered other viewpoints. After this experience, he reluctantly agreed that he was the wisest person in Athens, but only because he knew that he didn’t know.

Question your assumptions and beliefs that are causing disagreement. There is a lot of wisdom in admitting that you don’t know. I’ve found that if I begin answering a question with, “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure” I will produce a more intelligent response than if I pretend to be an expert. Again, this is very challenging if your thoughts and beliefs are tied up in your identity.

Setting out to “win” the argument or prove the other person wrong.

Don’t approach disagreement with the idea that you are going to change the other person’s mind. Instead, approach disagreements with the intention of getting clarity on what the other person believes and where those beliefs diverge from your own beliefs and why.

The only way mutual understanding can happen is by clearly identifying where the exact point of disagreement is and then investigating the reasons behind the disagreement. Granted, sorting out these reasons can be an extremely complex task. It often involves daring to put yourself in someone else's shoes and understanding a worldview that is very different from your own. By doing so, you risk losing your cherished assumptions. But this is the work that is necessary.

It’s useful to ask lots of questions here. Be like a detective.

  • What is most important to you about this?

  • Why is that important to you?

  • How does this make you feel?

  • What is it about this topic that makes you feel this way?

The exact wording depends on the situation. The goal here is to uncover where the disconnect is between your perspective and the other person’s perspective. You will not arrive at a mutual understanding by defending your views at all costs. Nor will you get there by ignoring your differences. The middle way is to understand the other person’s views. Only when you understand the other side can you make progress in the disagreement.

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Ruben Chavez is a writer, personal development educator, and host of The Think Grow Podcast. He has created a community of over 3 million readers across his collective platforms, including his popular Instagram page ThinkGrowProsper. Along with this blog, these platforms are his way of inspiring and connecting with thoughtful, creative, and ambitious people just like you.