unproductive disagreements

Published on March 23, 2020

I like to think that I avoided an argument -- or, at the very least, an unproductive conversation -- yesterday evening.

Someone with whom I was talking had an opinion with which I did not agree. I knew that their opinion was not one that I shared shortly after they started talking, and the more we discussed the topic the more passionate they became about their perspective.

At the start of our discussion, after this person had shared their thoughts, I intervened with my perspective on the topic. I had what I believed to be a rational view, and I felt as if I would be remiss if I did not share it. Perhaps the other person could learn something, right?

As soon as I started sharing my perspective, I felt as though they were gearing up for a response. They were on a different side of the argument, and they -- rightfully -- wanted to try to make everyone else see their side of the story.

It’s natural for us to want to convince other people that we are right and they are wrong. Being able to change someone’s mind makes us feel powerful and knowledgeable -- we feel like we were able to decipher something that someone else could not understand. Yet trying to prove that we are right and the other person is wrong is an easy way to start an argument.

Disagreement can be productive. In fact, most of the biggest decisions made in this world are the result of productive disagreement (think about how legislators consider new bills). However, it is also very easy to let our disagreements become arguments -- this is an unproductive disagreement -- which are not helpful for anyone involved.

Pointing out your perspective on a topic is important, and yesterday I knew that it was prudent for me to share my thoughts. At the very least, sharing what was going on in my mind would help everyone else learn more about how I was thinking, and if I thought we were going down a rabbit hole I could always pivot the discussion.

There is a difference between pointing out your perspective -- just informing people of where you stand -- and forcing other people to think the way that you do. The line between these two ends of the spectrum is fine and difficult to identify, especially when tensions rise.

Instead of telling the other person why they were wrong, I instead allowed them to share their perspective freely. I spent some time talking about my thoughts on the topic, but I wanted them to talk instead. I knew they would seize the opportunity because we all love to talk (if you get me in on the right topic, you’ll find I could talk for hours if left unchecked!). Talking gives us a heightened sense of importance because we are the one who controls the discussion. We decide what is said.

This person spent some time sharing their thoughts, then they naturally moved onto the next topic of discussion. We had quickly evolved from a place where an argument could have ensued, to a point where we were both now talking about something we both found interesting. Disaster averted.

What I learned from this interaction was that often the best way to navigate an argument is to share your thoughts then get out of the way. Let the other person do the talking, and even if you disagree with them, you should not interrupt.

After a while, they may tire and move onto something else. Or, alternatively, they may ask you a question, which gives you an opportunity to share your thoughts on terms that they control (this will make them more likely to listen to you).

If you feel as though someone is misinformed, tell them that you think they should double-check a statistic, or encourage them to do some additional reading. Never tell them they are wrong though.

Yesterday I could have told the person with whom I was speaking that they were wrong, and we would have quickly entered into an unproductive disagreement. If I said the words “you’re wrong,” it would have made them feel like I was attacking them, and like I was smarter. Instead I opted to be calmer, listen to their thoughts, and let the discussion keep going.

Sometimes it is just best to let someone talk and move on, unless the subject matter is really important. If what you are talking about is really important, then you may need to do more work to convince the other person, but in most cases you don’t need to do this. Suffice to say that, even in those cases, convincing someone to change their mind is difficult.

In my future discussions, if I sense that I may be about to enter into an unproductive disagreement -- where we argue rather than discuss -- then I will carefully assert my opinion, then let the other person talk. I know that I will likely never change the other person’s mind unless they are open to their mind being changed, and knowing this allows me to move onto thinking about more important things, instead of engaging in an argument.

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