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Disagree? How to Keep Talking Instead of Arguing

Sidestep conflict and grow yourself and your business by befriending people who don't act right (like you). Bring out their better side so they can see and support yours.
Written Jul 27, 2009, read 981 times since then.


He takes a stupid stand. (Translation: he hit my hot button.) My first response is to dislike him. (Apparently that’s a universal reaction.) My distaste shows on my face and in my tone, despite my attempt to cover my feelings in a cloak of civility. Even friends or sympathetic bystanders take a psychic step back.

Naturally he reacts in one of two ways: Stepping Back (saying little, going blank-faced, silent or even walking away) or Escalating Up (counter-attacking, speaking louder, standing closer). It’s instinctual - beyond our conscious choice. These are rapid, thin slices of gut reactions and responses. The charged air change happens in milliseconds. We’ve already made each other wrong.

Worse, yet is knowing we escalate up into conflict quicker than over into connection. That’s because our primitive brain is wired for survival.

Put more bluntly, self-protection trumps happiness or helpfulness in the sequence of gut instinctual reactions. Yet we can reduce the fear response and increase our ability to make connection, even in times of potential conflict. With practice, these steps have helped me, with these twin caveats:

One can be convincing without being right.
“There is no greater mistake than the hasty conclusion that opinions are worthless because they are badly argued.” ~ Thomas Huxley
Unless I fairly state his position first, he and bystanders will instinctively doubt mine.

Don't make an enemy when you can make a friend.The most likely way to change his mind and sway others in the situation is to:

1.  Slow down your responses, especially when you feel like acting more rapidly.

2.  Speak to the other person’s positive intent, especially when you feel like maligning their motives.

3.  Re-state their view fairly, completely, without negative emotion-laden descriptors.  As Nick Morgan advises, “You have to argue the other side’s case on its own merits. To forestall criticism and avoid inflaming a debate further, understand and be ready to give the other side’s position. Fairly. First. And forthrightly.”

4.  Ask for confirmation that you got it right, listen fully to her response and then confirm you hear any modifications she suggested.

5. Then and only then can you state your position and expect to be heard.

Brevity is better. It is less likely you’ll be interrupted.

6. Ask others to comment. That’s when you see your stand through their eyes.  In so doing you will know how to address what most matters to them. You may change how you feel about the issue.

“Honest disagreement is often a good sign of progress.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi

There’s an added benefit.

In this approach you are supporting a thread to the conversation – so people are more inclined to keep talking about their differences.  I called this Triangling in a book I wrote long ago.

When two people can focus on the issue in front of them (the third point in the triangle) rather than on each other’s reactions, then it becomes safer to talk about the issue. You may feel less instinctual need to attack the other person or defend yourself.

Bottom line benefits: Afterwards, you may like yourself and the other person better.

Plus with this approach:

1.    It is easier to stay calm and in the conversation.

2.    Everyone has a greater chance of being heard rather than feeling attacked.

3.    You are more likely to sway others and to be open to change.

4.    Rather than being destroyed, relationships may even be strengthened.

For more ideas on how to speak authentically, even while disagreeing read Crucial Conversations. Also, see Don Lindsay’s fascinating list of fallacious arguments.

Learn more about the author, Kare Anderson.

Comment on this article

  • Blogging Coach and Copywriter 
Seattle, Washington 
Judy Dunn
    Posted by Judy Dunn, Seattle, Washington | Jul 30, 2009

    Wow. Some powerful strategies. Gives me much to think about. I have two questions:

    1. Will this work with online interactions, too? I'm thinking particularly in the setting of a forum, where two people may be conversing, but many others are lurking and listening. Seems harder in that setting.

    2. Your first number 2 above: Speak to the other person's positive intent, ESPECIALLY when you feel like maligning their motives. In rare instances, I have an intuitive feeling (know?) that the person's intent was not positive. Am I not comprising my self-honesty by stating a positive intent when it appears to be otherwise? My background in education and psychology have taught me to work with the positive, but still...

    These are questions and issues most of us wrestle with all the time. Thanks for shining a light on the solutions, Kare.

  • ceo 
Sausalito, California 
Kare Anderson
    Posted by Kare Anderson, Sausalito, California | Jul 30, 2009

    J 1. With online there is so much to read between the lines that when there is a hint of potential conflict I'd ask to speak face-to-face or by phone

    1. Even and especially when their intent is not positive they will resent you for (in any way) indicating that possibility. First leave room for them to save face and to self-correct... you do that by acting as if they meant well. If their behavior does not improve, consider what you main goal is in the situation (3 choices - change how you act, ignore their behavior or leave).... and take the next action Neutral words are MUCH better than emotion-laden ones - so report what you are going to do .... now.
      BTW, when praising, use emotion-laden words.
  • Blogging Coach and Copywriter 
Seattle, Washington 
Judy Dunn
    Posted by Judy Dunn, Seattle, Washington | Jul 30, 2009

    Thanks, Kare. The work you do is so needed in this world. I love your solutions.