All illustrations by Anieszka Banks
When engaging with someone you disagree with, own the fact that it could get awkward. New Zealanders are good at taking a conflict-averse, “she’ll be right” approach, but being honest and choosing to talk through our differences is necessary for cultivating a civil society worthy of the name. It will probably be a little uncomfortable, but the following ideas are here to help us lean in and navigate disagreements with love and generosity.
MAKE IT PERSONAL
The common ground is there, we just rarely look down to realise we’re both standing on it. Before cracking into what you disagree on with gusto, spend some time exploring what you might share, you might be surprised how much you have in common. People usually come to disagreements caring deeply about solving a problem, improving their community, or seeking truth but often just have different ways of getting there.
If we truly think someone’s perspective is fundamentally flawed, chances are, they think the same about ours. We need to genuinely question and continuously refine our fundamental assumptions of how we see the world. “Learn to be suspicious of yourself,” says Jonathan Rauch, “just feeling certain you’re right doesn’t make you right—in fact it very likely makes you wrong.” Try not to be offended when you’re asked to defend your views; you probably expect them to do the same.
Be slow to speak. Instead of impatiently waiting for the other person to finally stop talking so you can regale them with your wisdom, offer them the gift of your full attention (perhaps put down your phone too). When we find ourselves bursting to break in with an emotional response, it’s a good time to take a deep breath, listen, and respond with something a little more thoughtful.
ASK GOOD QUESTIONS
It’s tempting to frame up an uncharitable caricature of the worst excesses of the other person’s argument to help them to see how ridiculous it is. For a more fruitful conversation, consider the strongest version of their argument (even if they don’t articulate it), ask questions that tease out the details of their points, or repeat what they said in your own words to check if you’re really picking up what they’re putting down.
SEEK TO UNDERSTAND NOT TO WIN
It’s easy to imagine our disagreements as a kind of winner-takes- all ideological war or blood sport with outright winners and losers. When we dig our heels in this way our primal fight-or-flight mode kicks in and we lose the vital capacity to understand and learn. Regardless of the outcome of a discussion, if both people genuinely come closer to the truth and to one another that’s a win. If we “win” an argument by dehumanising the other person, we’ve lost more than we think.
Ever reflect on your views five or ten years ago and think, “wow, I had a lot to learn?” Our understanding of the world is constantly growing and shifting, and while it’s hard to admit, we can be wrong. Remember that our brains also conspire against deeper engagement, preferring automatic emotional responses to slower rational ones. This means we must be open to the hard work of changing our minds—a sign of great courage.
WIDEN YOUR CIRCLES
It’s comfortable to hang out with those who think like us, like the same things as us, and affirm what we have to say. But we must get out of the comfort zone and befriend people who have different perspectives and experiences of life as this creates greater capacity for empathy and understanding when we encounter disagreement. If the only thing we disagree about is what to watch on Netflix, we’re in danger of becoming narrow-minded and set in our ways.
LOOK FOR GENUINE COMMUNITY
Surround yourself with people who are also up for refining the art of disagreement and respectfully pursuing truth, people who you can have a solid argument with and still be mates at the end. Find a community who are not so much like-minded, but “like-hearted,” as scholar Alan Jacobs puts it, people who will embrace you rather than shun you for thinking differently.
CHOOSE YOUR ENGAGEMENTS
Just because someone is wrong on the internet doesn’t mean we need to respond with a blazing keyboard of righteous fury. Without personal connection or an opportunity for ongoing discussion, it’s unlikely we will be able engage well, let alone change hearts and minds. Don’t feed the trolls.
SET THE SCENE
Environment has a huge effect on our mode of engagement. Arguments in front of a room full of people or an online audience of commenters are more likely to encourage performative point scoring. Moving to a one-on-one conversation over coffee or via direct message will make discussions more relational and focused.
We all have our own stories, and hearing others’ helps us break down the “us and them” mentality we are increasingly prone to today. Before dismissing someone else’s views as out-of-hand, ask them why they think what they think and just how they arrived at that perspective, and ask yourself what you would do or think in their situation. You will not only learn something about their ideas, you’ll learn about the person too.
KNOW WHEN TO CALL IT
Sometimes we get to a point where the discussion begins to lose steam, where we feel we have fully engaged with each other’s perspective but the fundamental and passionate disagreement remains. That can be demoralising, frustrating, or even hurtful, but just as winning isn’t our goal, consensus isn’t either. If we have truly listened to one another, there is nothing wrong with calling it and agreeing to disagree—in civility and with love.