How to respectfully disagree

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Sometimes people may act a certain way but think another. Such is the case of trying to respectfully disagree with others. (Addie Blacker)

“No offense, but … ” 

“I don’t want to be rude, but … ”

“Don’t take this personally … ”

Is it obvious what might come next?

Despite good intentions, these commonly-used phrases may lead to offense. Whether it’s a conversation with a family member or a friend, a classmate or a co-worker, everyone has varying opinions and beliefs. 

Is there a good way to disagree with someone while still being respectful of their thoughts and opinions?

BYU persuasive writing professor Erin Blackmun teaches her students that sharing their opinions with each other is an opportunity to be enlightened. Blackmun, along with former vice president of the BYU Speech and Debate Club Benjamin Braden and Better Angels coordinator Erika Munson, shared ideas on how to respectfully disagree during a conversation or an argument, whether with a friend or foe.

Have a well-researched opinion

“The best way to express an opinion is to have one,” Blackmun said. 

Braden suggested the importance of researching topics and understanding both sides before arguing an opinion.

“One of the biggest issues I see with people is they establish an opinion without any research,” Braden said. “If people are more informed and actually research topics more and understand what went into it, they’d have a better understanding of both sides and not be as contentious in the issues, rather than just attacking their opponent.” 

Agree to disagree

An article from the American Psychological Association suggests the importance of agreeing to disagree.

“Having conversations, specifically on sensitive topics, will not always be easy going. Recognize that you may not be able to change their viewpoints. Use the conversation as an opportunity to share views, not to convince anyone that your view is best,” it says.

Blackmun concurred. “Oftentimes, those ideas are different, and we don’t have to agree,” she said.

Braden also noted the importance of realizing most people won’t change their opinion because of a single conversation. Before reaffirming one’s own position, Braden suggested one should reiterate what the other said first, then point out that there’s another side to it. 

“Try to come to a mutual understanding first, then you can expound on your points without sounding aggressive,” he said. 

Better Angels uses this chart to help people recognize where they land when arguing with people either in-person or online. (Better Angels)

Treat an argument as an ‘exchange of ideas’

Blackmun said she discusses the meaning of an argument with her students. She said “argument” often has a connotation of involving contention and disagreement, but it should be portrayed as an exchange of ideas. 

“Contentment doesn’t ever solve anything,” she said. 

Blackmun said that when people have conversations about controversial topics, like abortion, politics, same-sex marriage or immigration, people tend to come in being defensive from the start, thinking they have to defend their stance. But Blackmun said she doesn’t think an argument has to be like that when people think of it more in terms of the “exchange of ideas.”

Blackmun, Braden and Munson capitalized on three main points to treat an argument as an “exchange of ideas.”

Listen

It may be intimidating for some to share their opinions — they may fear how the other person might react. Blackmun said it’s normal to feel this way, especially walking into a conversation with somebody they don’t know — but it’s the delivery that makes all the difference. 

“I think so much has to do with the way that we receive them,” she said. “Oftentimes in a conversation, it’s better to listen first, especially when you don’t have that prior relationship and when you’re not sure what the reaction is going to be.”

Blackmun frequently holds debates in her classes to help her students learn how to express their opinions. She said it’s an eye-opening experience to help them see why they have the opinions they do and where those opinions came from.

“I think that as teachers, even as parents, it’s more beneficial for us to help our people to see why they feel the way that they do instead of asking them to adopt the opinions that we have,” she said. 

Ask questions and speak in “I” statements

Munson works as the Utah State Coordinator for Better Angels, an organization largely made up of volunteers. The organization is based in New York and it teaches people to talk about politics in a productive and respectful way. Better Angels hosts workshops around the nation to facilitate positive discussions between Democrats and Republicans.

When trying to respectfully disagree, Munson suggested asking reflective questions, such as, “Can you tell me what you mean when you say … ” and, “Is it possible for you to say more about … ?”

“Be curious and interested in their experience,” she said. “That leads to the kinds of questions that people will welcome.”

Munson noted that it’s easier to not be as respectful online since “our natural breaks tend to be off because we’re not seeing how the person is reacting personally.” But she said the same principles of respectfully disagreeing in-person, like being curious and asking questions, can also be applied online.

“If somebody has a rant about this or that, first say, ‘I don’t agree with you, and I’d like to ask some questions about this. Would you be open to that?’ and then see what they say,” Munson said. “And then ask your question and see what the answer is. And if that person isn’t up for civil conversation, I say go away. I say go and find a human (in-person) and have a conversation that way. But it’s totally worth it to keep trying.”

Munson also encouraged speaking in “I” statements instead of general statements.

“Phrases like, ‘Everybody knows,’ and, ‘You don’t want to,’ can feel preachy and make others defensive. By speaking in the first person, ‘I feel,’ ‘In my experience,’ you are speaking for yourself and not assuming anything about anyone else,” she said.

Show respect through body language

Braden said what is said matters, but even more important is showing one is paying attention through body language. 

Poor body language like rolling eyes can show one is not open to an actual discussion, but rather just trying to dominate it.

“We all get caught in this trap where we’re so anxious to prove our own point that we completely ignore and don’t acknowledge the valid points others have,” he said. “I think the best way to show respect is to understand that everyone does have valid points, that although you may disagree with them, from their perspective, what they’re saying is true and has merits.”

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