how to disagree

This is the key to being more successful during an argument

Posted by for Life

These days we can’t seem to agree on anything and have no problem shutting our dissenters down. Stylist explores why it’s time we learned to accept other points of view.

My mum is the kindest person I know. She’s nice to everyone, generous to a fault and most of my friends prefer her to me. And then one day we started to talk about Trump… OH DEAR GOD IS SHE ACTUALLY INSANE?! How could someone I love not agree with me on what is so clearly a FACT? For those 15 minutes I thought I was talking to a cowboy-hatted pro-lifer from deepest darkest Texas. In hindsight, the poor woman only said, “Maybe he won’t be quite as bad as everyone thinks” (ever the optimist), but so righteous is my opinion that I couldn’t believe it wasn’t universally shared.

As a rule, I don’t think I’m too prone to disagreements – unless you don’t agree with the definitive sh*tness of all festivals, for example. Or the fact that La La Land is massively overrated. Or that parsley is the food of the devil. Yes, apart from those minor issues I’m incredibly open-minded…

We’re living in divided times. Politically, there is a colossal fault line running down our country. Disagreement burns like wildfire on the internet as we ‘debate’ Brexit, or whether a feminist can take her clothes off, or how Meghan Markle breathes. And those disagreements are ugly. There is no “agree to disagree” when a Twitter thread or forum fires up on the subject of veganism. It’s pure, unadulterated war.


An inability to disagree intelligently is particularly widespread in the workplace…

Disagreement is everywhere and is, of course, entirely natural in a democratic society made of real people with different experiences, thoughts, lives and dreams. Yet today we seemingly can’t hear another point of view without blasting it down or thinking it’s a personal attack. 

“Disagreement is inevitable, especially as there are very real political disagreements occurring across the world right now,” says Timandra Harkness, presenter of How To Disagree on BBC Radio 4. “What’s different is that we’ve lost the framework for having these kinds of discussions. Today, when we have a strong disagreement, we assume the person on the other side is either stupid or evil. The idea that another person might legitimately think differently is lost on us. You see this played out all over social media.”

Amy Gallo, author of the Harvard Business Review Guide To Dealing With Conflict, has found this inability to disagree intelligently is particularly widespread in the workplace. “What I’ve observed in the large organisations I work for is that there’s an epidemic of niceness because saying ‘I disagree’ is tantamount to saying ‘I hate you’. But it’s vital to healthy workplaces and healthy relationships.”

Our guest editor Brie said it best when responding to criticism on social media: “I know that we all do not share the same view on current affairs […] it is how we learn and grow. No one person can see the whole picture, so we need to work together, pool our resources and figure out what is true as one. I understand a few of you do not agree with some of the content I share. That is OK, and welcomed. What I ask though, in the future, when you disagree with what I share, instead of calling me ‘elite’, ‘ignorant’ or any of your other choice words – to instead remember I am on your side. I want our [world] to be strong and prosperous. Take a breath, and kindly share an article. Explain with facts why you disagree. Help us learn together. Name calling does not make me hear your argument as sound. It only works to keep us angry, misunderstood and divided. I appreciate your thoughts and would like to know more about them, without hate.”

arguing woman

We’ve lost the art of arguing well

Society was built on intelligent disagreement. “A sane and normal society is one in which people habitually disagree,” said influential psychiatrist Carl Jung in 1911. Historically, we can trace debating all the way back to Ancient Greece. Debating societies, based on the Greek model, first appeared in the early 19th century and are still seen today in many universities and schools. Scientists throughout history have been forced to regularly change their opinions as new evidence emerges about everything from the shape of the Earth to whether hormones exist.

Yet as our country, and indeed the world, is forced into having important and timely conversations about politics, race, gender and terrorism (to name just a few), we’re seemingly less able to disagree about it intelligently. “Disagreement is crucial because without having arguments no one changes their ideas,” explains Harkness. “Arguing – fairly and intelligently – is the best way to improve your thinking as a society and as an individual.” Take one look at the bitter arguments playing out on our news and social media channels and it seems it’s an art we have lost.

As with so many things today, our ability to disagree has been impacted by technology. Whereas once the country huddled around the TV to watch Moira Stuart read the 6 o’clock news, today we cherry-pick the news angle that correlates with our personal ideologies and tune any other agenda out. We follow people on social media whose voices and opinions echo our own. If we suddenly find that the brilliant author whose books we adore thinks Jacob Rees-Mogg has a point, we can mute them at the click of a button. 

“We’ve got worse at listening to opposing points of view because we simply don’t need to,” says Julia Dhar, a behavioural expert whose TED Talk, How To Disagree Productively, has been viewed 1.9 million times. “The result is that we only hear our thoughts reflected back at us, so when we do get into a disagreement we have no idea how to listen to the other person. Our arguments are also less fully formed because we haven’t had them tested, or tested other people’s.”

child girl

Unfortunately, we don’t get better at disagreeing with age

When we decide to jump into a disagreement on Twitter or reply to the suggestion of a colleague which is clearly nonsensical, we do it behind the safety of our computers. Yet that’s an incredibly ineffective way to disagree because a person’s voice is far more persuasive than the written word, according to a study by Juliana Schroeder at the University of California. Her research showed that hearing an argument spoken, rather than reading a transcript, brings an element of humanity to a conflict, yet our current go-to method means disagreement gets nastier quicker and we change our mind much less easily.

Of course, as humans we also find disagreement hard. Disagreement hurts. Watch a toddler disagree with their mother’s refusal to allow them to eat chewing gum off the pavement and you’ll see hysteria. That reaction doesn’t get much better with age. 

“People interpret any type of disagreement as a threat,” explains Gallo. “What we know from neuroscience is that our brains aren’t good at distinguishing whether that threat is we’re being chased by a bear or we’re being challenged over the best way to stack a dishwasher – both elevate your heart-rate, create a knot in your stomach and see cortisol rush through your body. But the biggest problem is that neurologically you lose access to the pre-frontal cortex, the rational thinking part of the brain, when you experience this type of emotional stress. This is why it takes a lot of emotional control to hear someone else’s point of view – however rational it might be – when you’re mid-disagreement.”

Admitting defeat and actually changing your mind hurts even more. “The human brain finds it very hard to change its mind. There’s a lot of research which says that if I tried to change your mind, bringing you all the research to prove you wrong, it would actually do the reverse and cause you to hold on to your existing views more strongly,” says Gallo. 

Which leads us to perhaps the biggest difficulty we have with disagreements, which is that they often cut down to the bone of who we are. We have carefully built up our opinions over time so that they have become ingrained with how we view ourselves as people. More than ever our opinions define us and if someone disagrees it challenges everything you think about yourself. 

“Our viewpoints and our opinions are all about identity,” says Harkness. “The thing is, we see so many things about ourselves as our identity now. Take veganism – it’s not just people who don’t eat or use animal products, they’re vegans with a capital V. It’s incredibly difficult to change an opinion when it’s so closely tied up in who we think we are.” We’re also more vocal about our opinions and have a bigger platform to share them, which leads to tribal politics. “We express our opinions more publicly than ever before because we each have our own platform – typically social media,” continues Harkness. “If you then change that opinion people feel threatened because you’re not one of them any more, which makes it even harder to change your mind.”

Yet changing your mind is a good thing. For some reason we’ve come to value bosses, business leaders and political leaders who don’t change their mind, who make decisions and stick with them. “Changing your mind means you’ve confronted your own prejudices and stereotypes, listened, learnt new information and had the vulnerability to say you’ve changed how you think about something,” explains Dhar. “We praise children for this and we should praise adults for this too.”

women on the phone

We express our opinions more publicly than ever before because we each have our own platform – typically social media

But intelligent disagreement doesn’t just make us better leaders, it makes us better people. Our tendency to surround ourselves with people who think the same as us – be it on social media, at work or even where we live – and our human nature to look harder for evidence that confirms our existing opinion (aka confirmation bias) is turning us into lazy thinkers and bad debaters. We should challenge ourselves to listen to others more, find weakness in their arguments and allow them to seek fault in ours so that we can test out new ideas and find new solutions. And, more likely, be right.

So how do we open our minds and become better at accepting different points of view? “We should all try to be consciously curious about people, places and experiences that feel unlike the places you come from and the experiences that you’ve had,” says Dhar. “Take a look at what your media diet consists of. Do the people that you read and watch have similar voices and ideas to you? Just like nutritionists say you should have a broad range of foods in your diet, your media diet should also be broad and full of different perspectives. I assure you that whatever it is you believe in, there are reasonable people on the other side of that debate.”

But most of all, don’t be scared of disagreement. It doesn’t have to spell irreparable damage to a relationship. “Reclaim the word conflict,” says Gallo. “Conflict is incredibly important for colleagues, partners and friends. If we disagree at work there are often better outcomes by debating an issue. Diversity of thought is just as important as diversity of people.”

Contrary to what we’re so often told, conflict in relationships can be good too. “If you can disagree with a partner and come out of the other side you’re showing that your relationship can survive conflict and it strengthens your bond,” says Gallo. “Think about the people you’re closest to, they’re often the ones you’ve had the worst conflicts with.”

In Dhar’s TED Talk she asked the audience to think of a time when they changed their mind about something significant. To listen to someone else’s point of view without prejudice, to admit you might be wrong and to change your mind is rare. But it’s vital. So, reader, I leave you with this: what have you changed your mind about? If you can’t think of anything, maybe it’s worth thinking further.

How to disagree well, by Elizabeth Stokoe, professor of social interaction at Loughborough University

Phrase things well: “If someone says, ‘I hate Radio 4’, start with a weak agreement: ‘Well, it can be a bit stuffy, but I love it.’ You’ve made a concession, but maintained your view.”

It’s not about you: “People are very attuned to their own self-presentation in arguments. Perhaps it hinders listening to the other party, thus escalating the dispute.”

Block petty aggression: “Some people are what I call ‘first movers’. They start a conversation with a challenge (eg ‘Is that your new picture? I don’t like it’). If you challenge their opening gambit, the chances are they’ll reply as though they are the victim (‘You’re so touchy!’ or ‘I’m only joking!’). You probably can’t change them, but you can resist. When I moved house, one of the first things my neighbour said was ‘Your gutter’s leaking’. I replied, ‘Hello!’ very brightly. Push back and socialise them into what goes at the start of a conversation.”

How to have an effective disagreement, by behavioural economist Julia Dhar

“Listen. What does this person believe? What are they afraid of? What do they care about? Then tell them you’re here to learn, that you believe strongly in this issue but you want to learn about a different perspective. Think about what you can both agree on: we call this a shared reality. Often when people are really passionate they both care about the same issue, just see it in a different way. Even if you don’t change their mind and they’re completely closed, it’s worthwhile to work on your own art of disagreement.”

How to disagree at work, by author Amy Gallo 

“Start by asking permission. Try saying, ‘I see that a little differently, would it be OK if I shared my perspective?’ You’re giving them the chance to buy into the disagreement and get prepared to hear negative feedback. You don’t want to blindside someone. If you can endorse your relationship before you start, it can ease anxiety. Say, ‘I want to be clear that you’re great at your job, however I think the meeting could have gone a little differently.’ Point out this disagreement is a discrepancy: ‘We usually see eye-to-eye, however, I think we could benefit from debating.’ Also, using the word ‘debate’ implies a friendly discussion.”

Brie says…

Now more than ever it’s important to disagree respectfully and openly. Let’s learn how to do it together.

Main image: Getty

Other images: Unsplash

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Alix Walker

Alix Walker is editor-at-large at Stylist magazine. She works across print, digital and video and could give Mary Berry a run for her money with her baking skills.

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