How we could agree to disagree (productively)
A brainstorming tool I often use at work is the “Six Thinking Hats” approach. The technique encourages a group to analyze a situation from all angles, by dividing different types of thinking into six metaphorical hats: positivity, creativity, emotions, processes, data, and caution. Each person wears a hat and examines an issue based on that lens. Apart from helping us move out of our default way of thinking, it spurs healthy debate among group members who are usually hesitant about sharing their thoughts. By introducing a framework on how to disagree, our discussions are enriched by constructive dissent, leading to better decisions and more genuine team consensus.
Disagreements are an inevitable part of human interaction and we need to learn how to navigate them productively. Exposure to diversity of thought enhances critical thinking skills and develops a person’s capacity for empathy. In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, participants were asked to speak to people with opposing political beliefs. Those who had a respectful exchange with their conversation partners reported higher levels of affinity and appreciation, even if they still disagreed on key issues.
Civil discourse—the constructive exchange of diverse opinions to achieve greater understanding—is essential for a functioning democracy. Better-informed policies are a result of thorough deliberation. If dissent is stifled, society will lose its ability to challenge ideas, and eventually, its ability to hold those in power into account. Citizens should express differing views without fear of retaliation, and leaders should be able to welcome a variety of perspectives from within their ranks. As then US President Barack Obama said in 2008, “We’re not going to agree on every single issue, but what we have to do is be able to create an atmosphere where we can disagree without being disagreeable, and then focus on those things that we hold in common…”
Schools are usually the primary space where students first engage in civil discourse. The teacher models for students how to form an opinion and how to tackle contrasting views in a safe environment. Done effectively, students learn how to communicate their thoughts with clarity and respect, as well as the value of meaningful dialogue in achieving the common good.
Social media—where a large chunk of public debate now takes place—has made civil discourse much more challenging. The anonymity and detachment afforded by an online environment have made it quite easy for people to disregard the supposed basic rules of showing mutual respect and good faith. Just like in a classroom, however, the best way to promote civil discourse in less-than-ideal conditions is by modeling the online behavior we want to see in others.
1. Strive for mindful rather than impulsive responses.
An inescapable downside of online discussions is the possibility of having your views challenged by vicious character attacks rather than well-reasoned statements. Instead of acting in the heat of the moment when you might reply with something you might not otherwise say, psychologists advise expanding that space between the stimulus and your response. By giving your emotions enough time to settle, you can assess more carefully how you would like to respond. Whether you decide to ignore or call out the inflammatory claims before bringing back the conversation to an intellectual exchange, lengthening the space gives you back the agency to choose a more mindful reply.
2. The delivery matters as much as the message.
People do not always listen to sensible ideas, and it is often because of the way a message is delivered. When it comes across as an imposition, people usually shut down and we end up jeopardizing any opportunity for a constructive dialogue. When touching on contentious topics, I have learned to ask first if I could offer a different perspective before giving it. For online conversations, I try to frame my responses as an alternative view that might be worth considering, e.g., “Another side to this issue is…” It’s worth remembering that the spirit of civil discourse is not about winning an argument, but the mutual airing of multiple views to arrive at a more well-rounded position.
3. Learn to argue against your thinking.
Confirmation bias is the tendency of people to only seek out information that validates their thoughts while ignoring those that do not fit comfortably with their viewpoints. Arguing against your thinking helps you avoid this trap because it compels you to explore the strengths of alternative ideas, and identify the weaknesses in yours. Adopting this mindset is also helpful for finding common ground. Oftentimes, people who appear to have polar-opposite perspectives share many commonalities. Looking more intently at how another person’s experiences and values intersect with ours enables us to start building bridges and have more positive interactions. The best insight I have gotten from years of facilitating Six Thinking Hats is that people can change their cherished views, but the breakthrough is often brought on by a personal reflection rather than an external voice. My goal for productive disagreements is not to convince anyone to think the way I do, but to use these conversations as touchpoints for curiosity, and an invitation toward empathy.