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How to Disagree Graciously in 5 Steps

Ladies and Gentlemen, there’s a whole lot of conflict going on. Of course, I don’t need to tell you this. You know it. Whether it’s at home with a child, sibling, spouse or parent, with friends or coworkers, or within your local, national, or online community you are experiencing or witnessing conflicts. In my office I listen to individuals embroiled in it and observe spouses or divorced co-parents fueling it or stuck in it. Everyone appears to be maddened, saddened, and/or scared by it. So much energy being consumed by it. Many are so negatively impacted by it and bone-weary tired of it, that they just shut down and withdraw from it.

As some one who looks for the opportunity in the crisis, I am hopeful that the recent up-tick in the cacophony of conflict surrounding us all will be an opportunity to find a better way. Withdrawal may certainly be a better solution than throwing fuel onto the fire of a conflict, but it is not a long-term solution. Sure, sometimes we all need a break from the negativity, or to ignore bad behavior. Sometimes we need to withdraw temporarily to calm ourselves down so we can return to a conversation in a more productive way. These can be helpful. But then what? At some point, sometimes, we need to face it. Conflicts and disagreements are inevitable. They signal that we care about something or someone and that our viewpoint or interests differ from the unique viewpoints and needs of some one else. What I mean by unique is that there is no one else exactly like you in the world! That’s an amazing and wonderful thing. And, since we choose to live among other unique individuals, we will experience differences. Different needs, different perspectives, different ideas, different life experiences. Whether it’s with the person you love most in the world or a stranger, those differences are wonderful and horrible. We love them and we hate them.

Given that we have no choice, really, but to accept the reality that the world is not made up of 7 plus billion people that are exact replicas of ourselves, how do we live among our differences? How do we disagree and experience conflicts in a way that helps us rather than harm us? I ask this question about our closest relationships at home as well as our broadest relationships, as citizens within our communities, nation, and world. We all need ways to navigate our conflicts and differences. Ways that heal rather than harm. Our families need it. Our friendships need it. Our workplaces need it. Our nation needs it. The world needs it. Our children need us to show them how to make peace with our differences and disagree graciously. We are humans after all. We have an amazing capacity to adapt and change. We are not destined to repeat patterns that are not working. 

So let’s talk a little bit about why, if we humans are so adaptable, do we keep ourselves stuck in negative, destructive, unproductive patterns? Why don’t we get along? Well, the short answer is that we are not only amazingly adaptive, we also feel things deeply. While our feelings do a great job of protecting us, they can also contribute to our conflicts. Sometimes, we can have the best of intentions to be calm and respectful, we know how to act and what to do, but we can’t execute. Our emotions get in the way and we are not reasonable or kind. Our fear or pain leads us to lash out, blame, and objectify the other person that we perceive as a threat. Sometimes, we don’t know what to do. Maybe we need some new communication skills. After all, how to communicate well is not taught in school. Many of us didn’t exactly have great models growing up. Sometimes, our own ego gets in the way. The need to be right, or at least not feel the shame of being wrong, the need to save face gets in our way of listening or understanding others.

It’s not easy to overcome our emotions or our ego. Getting along is difficult and messy business! So, why bother? Simply, we need each other! We live among each other in groups and communities using goods and services created and maintained by others. None of us is an island. So, how? How can we put more effort into getting along and disagreeing in a way that helps us learn rather than fight? Besides, the blame, defend, angry, hostile cycle just doesn’t feel very good. Why not try out something that just might feel better and improve our relationships? After all, we are incredibly adaptable at learning new things.

Here are 5 Steps:

  1. Step one is always pause before you speak. Take a moment to calm down. Our emotions are lightening fast. To shift out of the threat-attack cycle you need to slow down and calm down your emotions. You will be able to then think about what you say. You will be more able to listen. You will be more in control rather than a prisoner of your emotions.
  2. Consider listening first. Most of us are terrible listeners. Because we are so invested in our own point of view (there’s that ego!), it’s often hard to tolerate some one else’s point of view. Especially if it’s different from our own, or even worse, is a criticism of us! You could choose to not take the other person’s perspective personally. You could decide that their behavior and their perspective is about them! Most people are just trying to live their own lives; their intention isn’t to make your life difficult, it is to get through their own life. If you consider that, you may feel less threatened by them and more able to listen and problem-solve. Personal attacks are threatening and emotional. Problems can be solved with less emotion. Try to be curious about points of view that are different than your own. It costs nothing to listen and we receive the benefit of giving a gift to the other person– the gift of listening.
  3. See the humanity in others. We are less likely to be mean or cruel when we connect with what we have in common. We all understand what it feels like to love someone, to lose someone, to suffer, to make a mistake, to be embarrassed, to be hurt by someone. Connecting to our common humanity can help us listen with some understanding; to empathize with another’s struggle. To recognize it as your own struggle. This compassion for our common humanity and respect for the basic dignity we all crave can do much to soften the hard edges of our own hurt feelings and our harsh judgments. It’s also helpful to know that you can understand someone’s feelings and struggles without having to agree with everything they believe or say. In the spirit of reciprocity, it will help to give that which you want to receive. Most of us would like to be listened to and understood. See what happens when you offer that.
  4. Look for what you have in common and where you share common interests or goals. See what unites you before hashing out what divides you. Look for any small area to agree. This can help bridge the divide between you. If you can find a shared goal, then you both have an interest in finding a solution that will work for both of you. Working together toward a common goal helps us get along. Fighting over our differences creates fractures, mistrust, distance, and isolation.
  5. Think before you speak. The most productive things you can do in a conflict do not involve you talking about your point of view and needs. It involves calming yourself down, getting perspective about the other person, trying to connect to your common humanity, listen and show understanding, and look for areas of agreement or shared goals. That means a lot is happening before you start talking about yourself. This is so hard! Please trust that there is a pay off to being disciplined about this. Your efforts will contribute to a much more productive conversation. Ask yourself if what you are about to say will add value to the conversation, if it will help or hurt your relationship, if it will move you toward your goal, if it will maintain your values and integrity. Hmm, tall order. Be careful to not confuse facts with opinion. Eliminate “always” and “never” from your lexicon, as few things are either. The more you think about what you are going to say before you say it, the more reasonable you are likely to be. In the end, you may still disagree, but you can still choose to be kind and respectful.

Most of us talk more than we need to and listen less than we need to. Our relationships and our conflicts would benefit from a lot more listening and a lot less talking. Here again, we will be challenged to manage our emotions and our ego. Of course you have something important to say! I’m suggesting that you do the work above before you say it. After all, if you really want some one to listen to and respect what you have to say, doesn’t it make sense to be careful about how you say it? You will want to say it in the way most likely to be heard and taken seriously. So, use your words carefully and listen generously. You will be able to disagree with grace, respect, and dignity; or even better, to resolve the conflict!

If you are tired of the cacophany of conflict around you, consider starting your own revolution of peace by beginning in your closest circles, at home with loved ones, or at the office, or on social media. Pause and edit before you hit “post” on social media or “send” that email at the office. Pause and breathe and think before you react to your spouse. Listen to your child before you launch into that lecture. Imagine what struggles your neighbor might be having that could contribute to them acting that way. Listen with a curious mind to some one who thinks or believes differently from you. Search in ernest for common interests or agreements. Focus on solutions rather than problems.

I invite you to experiment with these tactics of peaceful conflict management and observe what happens. Here’s to building kindness and respect in our relationships and communities.



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