The Art of Disagreeing

Without Being Disagreeable

Disagreements are part of life -- but they don't have to ruin relationships.  Though you never really know when your interests, values, preferences and views will be in conflict with someone else's, you can control the tone and substance of your reactions and remain on friendly terms.

Why Disagreements Turn Nasty

Even the most loving spouses, the most cooperative coworkers and the friendliest neighbors don't always see eye to eye.

When problems arise, they're usually the result of a failure to tolerate the other side's position.  Therefore, the secret of an agreeable disagreement is for you to resolve beforehand that you will be unconditionally constructive.   You must ask yourself, What is good for me and what is good for our relationship?  -- before events spiral out of control.

Disagreeing -- with a smile
  • Take control of your emotions.
When we want events to go our way, such desires are often accompanied by strong emotions.  If those emotions are strong enough, they can cloud rational thinking and lead us to frustration and anger.

You can eliminate or exclude such passionate feelings.  That's what makes us human.  But you can be aware of your feelings and, in many cases, teach yourself to control them before and during a disagreement.

  • Example:  When we lose our tempers in a disagreement, the automatic reaction is to display anger -- to show the other person that you feel strongly about the issue at hand.
  • But if you can feel your anger before you blow up, you are most likely to control it and allow the disagreement to be resolved.

    Talking about your emotions also helps bring them under control.  If you can feel yourself swelling with emotion, let the other person know it.

  • Strategy:  Instead of raising your voice or pacing, lower your voice.  Then take a deep breath.  Slow down.  Look the other person in the eye and say, 'Maybe you're unaware of just how troubled I am about...'
  • Often it pays to take a 10-minute break so you can regain control and communicate more clearly.
    • Understand the other person -- and his/her position.
    Before you begin to disagree, try to understand and appreciate how the other person views the situation.  This will help you to keep your cool.  Many people who rush into a disagreement jump to false or imagined conclusions about the motives, feelings and beliefs of other people.
  • Strategy:  Make believe you are the other person.  Ask yourself why (s)he might be taking this position.  What might be causing those reactions?  Consider how various outcomes might make that person feel.  The result is that you may become more willing to compromise during your disagreement.  If not, you'll certainly find it easier to air your position in a calm, personal way.
  • In classes where [Professor Fisher] teaches negotiation skills, [he] has students reverse roles to try to understand both sides of any disagreement.
  • Strategy:  Try it yourself.  Have a friend take your position, while you pretend to be your own adversary.  Or simply speculate, on paper, about the thoughts and feelings of the other side.
    • Communicate more effectively.
    Even if your solution or point of view is better than the other person's position, nothing poisons a disagreement faster than confused thoughts and faulty logic.  Both lead quickly to misunderstandings and mutual disrespect.
  • Example:  A long, uninterrupted monologue -- in which you dictate to the other person what you want -- is a bad way to disagree.
  • Instead of a lecture, have a conversation in which you each have a chance to present your views -- and respond.
  • Helpful: Present your points in short, clear statements.  Pause to allow for a response.  And LISTEN.
  • Listening is hard work, because your "internal voice" is likely to be busy formulating your reply.  Instead of paying attention to that inner voice and allowing it to distract you, focus on the other person's words. 

    Don't daydream.  Be curious about what he is thinking and feeling, and see how much you can learn from that person's ideas.

    Repeat what you think the person said... and request confirmation or correction.

    The key is to take personal responsibility for any misunderstandings.  Instead of saying, I've said it five times, are you listening?, try It's my fault.  I probably haven't made myself clear.  Let me explain...

    This is the posture of strength.  The ability to assume responsibility is a sign of self-confidence and self-control.  It will boost your ability to communicate effectively.

  • Persuade, don't coerce.
  • Attempting to bully someone into agreeing with you almost always leaves hard feelings, even if you have sugarcoated your demands.
  • Better:  Use persuasion, which is a good-faith attempt to convince with logic.  It is always better in the long run.
  • One [Professor Fisher's] favorite sayings is Be soft on people... hard on the problem.  Coercion generally involves and attack -- whether direct or implied -- on the other person.  Your message is that the other person is stupid or dishonest in some way.  Persuasion is far more effective, since it stands on the merits of your case and allows the other person to make up his mind without external pressure.
  • Example:  Start by saying, 'I've invested a lot of time thinking about this, and I would like you to hear me out.'  Then go on to logically state your case...
  • Excerpt from Bottom Line Personal interview with Professor Roger Fisher of Harvard Law School who is one of the top experts in negotiating.  He is the author of Beyond Machiavelli:  Tools for Coping with Conflict (Penguin) and Getting to Yes:  Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In (Penguin)