Agree to disagree: how to argue politely

Written by Claire Isaac for Australian Seniors

According to Aristotle, the sign of an educated mind is being able to entertain a thought without having to accept it. But even he – with COVID-19, climate change and anti-vaxxers causing arguments willy nilly – may have had a little trouble accepting some people’s thoughts today.

Despite the stress that can come from hearing a loved one or colleague’s view that jars with your own, experts agree there is value in having conversations on topics you may not see eye to eye about. “It is great to talk to people with different ideas, not with a view to prove them wrong or to confirm how ‘stupid’ their ideas are, but with a view to learn more,” says C-suite mentor and women’s business coach Amanda Blesing.

Choose your battles

“Yes, it can be good to talk to people who disagree with you,” agrees psychologist and communications trainer Clare Mann. “We can all learn from other people’s perspectives and open our minds to new ideas.”

Of course, talking is one thing – and learning, even better – but sometimes discussions about such hot topics as climate change or vaccinations can get out of hand, particularly when those issues are being debated on TV and across social media. When emotions are elevated and opinions are different, that’s when fights can blow up.

“It’s important to choose your battles,” warns Clare, “and if you have a history with someone where it usually ends in a fight, decide whether it’s worth the effort. Our logic and cool heads can often disappear [in these situations] and we can become emotional and judging.

“It’s also important to avoid making things personal, for example, ‘I’m pro-vaxx and you’re anti-vaxx’, or ‘climate change denier vs climate change supporter’. These are polarisations and when we do this, we miss out on real discussion of ideas.”

Keep an open mind

While we tend to be less likely to argue over these things at work because our roles dictate a certain protocol and politeness, in families, says Clare, “The gloves come off and damage can be done by not taking care to consider other people’s feelings and perspectives. Keep an open mind, ask questions and realise other people are not the enemy. Remember that everyone is entitled to their own opinion and even if you don’t accept it, it’s theirs and you have your own. We don’t have to agree on everything, and we don’t have to dismiss other people because they think differently about different things.”

The same can be said in relationships. “There is often an assumption that disagreement is bad, and conflict is disastrous,” says relationships therapist Annie Gurton. “However, disagreement is healthy and conflict is ‘growth trying to happen’.”

Have a calm discussion

That’s sage advice – and a useful little saying to remember when arguments flare – but there are times when those arguments can flare a little too much. “A lot of long-standing friendships are being lost at the moment due to strong emotions, media hype, and misunderstandings,” says Clare. “Don’t lose friends by buying into the fear of what is around – instead be generous with your support of others and ask them to be open to you too, even if you end up disagreeing.” 

“If the relationship is with your partner-in-life, or just boy/girlfriend, then it’s best to have a calm and mature discussion,” advises Annie. “Allow the other plenty of time to say their piece without interruption, checking that you’ve heard them right, and then give your reply.”

Sometimes, just letting go of the idea that we’re the only sensible ones in the room may help us actually understand the other person’s view better. “When we let go of the need to be right, it helps us see what else might be possible,” says Amanda. “It also helps us lean into things that we don’t know a lot about.”

6 ways to disagree respectfully

By Clare Mann, psychologist

  1. Focus on your thoughts and views on whatever topic you’re discussing, not the person with a different point of view.
  2. Watch your tone of voice, ensuring you are not sarcastic or undermining, but are just sharing what you think.
  3. Set the scene by saying, “I appreciate your perspective and yet I think…”
  4. Avoid using the word ‘but’ after highlighting the merits of their idea. Instead use ‘and’. ‘But’ indicates that you don’t really value their input, but want to soften the impact.
  5. Ensure you are clear what the other person is saying/means before responding. Clarification can come through asking questions to find out more before you say anything about your position on a topic.
  6. Avoid asking, “Why do you think/feel this?” Instead say, “What specifically do you think/feel about this?” ‘Why’ invites a defensive response or justification. ‘What’ lowers the other person’s guard and invites more information.

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