Let’s agree to disagree

Op-eds Opinions

Having a strategy to disagree effectively may save you some headaches this year

Stock image via Pixabay

With potentially a new prime minister coming in October and a new university president coming next summer, cultivating the ability to disagree will be especially important this year. So, how do we disagree with someone?

It may seem like a silly question, as we disagree all the time at UVic. However, we rarely think about what methods we should use when disagreeing and what result we should hope for from the disagreement.

My assumption is that you do not know absolutely everything on your topic and are open to receiving new information. If you know everything, this article and healthy disagreement will not help you.

However, if my assumption is correct then the following suggestions may be of use. 

1.What are we talking about?

What’s the disagreement? Are we discussing whether or not Starbucks, in particular, should not be allowed on campus — or are we discussing whether or not all corporate retail businesses should be excluded? 

Before considering the conversation a disagreement, we should attempt to clarify what we disagree. In his book Disagreement, Bryan Francis refers to cases where people agree but have not clarified what they are talking about as “illusionary disagreement.” If you think that Starbucks should come on campus because you like their coffee, and I think that they should be excluded because I don’t want corporate retail businesses on campus, we may not be disagreeing. You might agree, after hearing enough evidence, that private retail businesses shouldn’t open on campus. I might try their coffee and like it. I might buy you a bag for your dorm room and you might attend the meeting the Board of Governors is having to address corporate retail outlets on campus. No disagreement here.

2. What are we hoping to accomplish here anyway?

But say we do disagree — we should enter the disagreement with an idea of what the end is. I do not believe our goal should be to change the other person’s opinion. Instead, I believe that we should listen with the aim of gaining a better understanding for the other person’s position. Likely, we will continue to disagree on issues like federal leadership or university governance as these are ongoing debates that will never be settled indefinitely. However, if we understand the other person’s argument, its strengths and its flaws, then we are in a better position to present evidence to show why we believe we are right. So hear the other person out. If that is too much to ask, then we are disagreeing with no purpose whatsoever. We’re just talking over each other. 

3. “[A] bad critic…starts by discussing the poet and not the poem.” – Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading.

This disagreement is a real one and you’ve listened to the other person and understand their position, now what? Start with the problem, not the person. We have all disagreed with someone that we dislike because of some personal grievance. We might say “well you don’t understand…” or “you just won’t admit that…” This is a bad way to disagree with someone. 

They are not the problem and neither are you: the idea being discussed is the problem. Ignorance is learned and can be unlearned. We can disagree most effectively by explaining what information we were given to reach our conclusion on the topic. If you have listened to the other person, and they have listened to you, you two may be able to identify what information is contradictory and have a more productive conversation where facts and proofs are discussed, as opposed to the morals of your debate partner.

4. Do the facts matter?

Yes, they do. If you don’t have facts to share, or if your conversation partner does not, then it may be time to stop talking about it and move on to something more benign. The weather comes to mind. 
Bring the facts to your disagreement because without presenting evidence, sometimes without presenting overwhelming evidence, you should not expect someone to change their opinion. And how sad! After all, you think you’re right! And they should too. Now, prove it or simply agree to disagree.