This article could also be called How to Disagree with People and Not Lose the Argument (or Your Mind).
How does it go for you when you disagree with someone? Do you fold like a flapjack, or bare your teeth and go for the throat? If you tend towards either of these options, then I imagine that disagreements, or even spirited conversations, aren’t all that enjoyable. It’s possible that if you’ve spent enough time on either side of the equation, you’ve learned to sniff out any potential sources of disagreement and keep a pretty wide berth to avoid becoming predator or prey.
Last week, I shared an opinion on a political issue about which I feel very strongly, publicly on social media. Now, I don’t often do this, because of the circus it tends to unleash, and also because of my unwillingness to let go once I’ve sunk my teeth into a debate (think honey badger), while simultaneously making myself wrong for my opinion and feeling stupid. I know—it’s a special skill of mine to be in two places at once. #magic
I love me a good debate, and I’ll get ferocious to defend my side. You know that moment when you’re playing with a cat, and you see the cat switch from your sweet snuggly pet into a lethal predator? Yeah, that’s me in a debate. I’ll twist and turn my intellect like a boa constrictor on my opponent’s, waiting for my adversary to fall from my poison-tipped barbs of righteousness and brilliance. I come in all sweet and Snow White, and then BAM! Suddenly you’ve been backed into a corner and flipped on your back after having your legs swept by Black Widow, played by a black-leather-clad Scarlett Johansson (obviously). I’m not happy with just being right; I want to leave my rival writhing and bleeding out—intellectually speaking—on the floor.
Just for the record, I’m simultaneously not proud of this aspect of my survival mechanism, and a fair bit in awe of it, at the same time. #twoplacesatonce
The comments were sent to me very respectfully and via private message, rather than incite a riot on my public post, which is very decent. The rhetoric was well thought out, even though I had to read them twice, because the first time, I could feel my fight response activating in preparation for a skirmish (what a fun word!).
Instead of leaping into the fray, though, I recognized what was happening, and was able to take a deep breath.
For the first time ever, I realized that someone challenging my opinion or belief meant nothing; it didn’t mean I was wrong, or even that they were wrong. It didn’t mean anyone needed to surrender or be conquered. Nothing needed vanquishing, and nothing needed protecting: it was simply a conversation. I was under no obligation to change my mind, or to change theirs, either.
Suddenly, I could read their comments without the customary shade of red descending. I could see where they were coming from, and even appreciate the care and intelligence with which they drafted their thoughts on the matter. These were not bad people, as I’m often wont to think of anyone challenging me. I didn’t need to win this argument, or have infallible proof to justify my beliefs. I was not small or stupid or wrong because they made a good and valid argument, and neither were they (though really, only the former is the main concern of my fear-based threat response).
I was allowed to disagree with someone and still believe what I chose to believe. My opinion wasn’t invalidated by someone else’s. We could simply disagree, and continue on our way, and talk about it, respect each other, and still be friends.
Maybe I’m a little late to the party, but this was a revolutionary breakthrough for me, forty years in the making.
I don’t think I’m alone, here. Based purely on the comments section of literally anything online ever, I’d say a lot of humans struggle with disagreements.
I think we’ve got the equation wrong. Disagreement doesn’t mean that someone is wrong. It simply means that you and at least one other person don’t currently see eye to eye on a particular subject.
Disagreeing ≠ Either You’re Wrong or I’m Wrong (and I Better Not Be Wrong).
Disagreement is not a duel. It’s not a fight to the death. It’s not a Highlander-style battle, at the end of which “there can be only one” and it’d better be you, holding your opponent’s severed head in victory. Ew.
Disagreement does not mean that differences of opinion Must Be Remedied Immediately Lest The World—Or My Head—Implode.
But that is often how we hold it, isn’t it? Like a disagreement is a matter of life and death, or if that seems dramatic, then at least a matter of convincing someone that they are wrong and we are right.
Disagreement is a difference of opinion. It means we hold a belief and someone else holds a differing one. Big deal. You can disagree with someone and both survive to tell the tale. There are roughly 7.6 billion people on this planet, and a whole lot of them hold different beliefs and ideas than you do. You don’t even know how many disagreements you’re in without knowing it (it’s a lot). If you went about crusading to put right everyone who held a differing belief than you, or was wrong on the Internet, you wouldn’t get very far at all.
I would say that, in my experience, most people would say that they don’t enjoy conflict. It makes sense. Conflict can create discord and emotional discomfort, driving a wedge of malaise into relationships. Often, a conversation in which the parties have differing opinions can escalate into a disagreement, and from there, into an argument, with each side fighting to be right, or at least, not wrong.
Here’s the thing though: it’s not the disagreement causing your suffering. It’s what you’re making the disagreement mean about yourself, about them over there, and about the relationship (the space in the middle). It’s that you’re taking a disagreement and turning it into a fight, instead of a difference of opinion.
It’s that you’re trying to win, in order to avoid losing. I’m pretty sure that you’re making “losing” mean that you are stupid/uneducated/ignorant/a loser/failure/idiot, and since you obviously don’t want to wear those hats, you’re trying to force it onto your opponent’s head, instead. Someone’s gotta wear the stupid/uneducated/ignorant/a loser/failure/idiot hat, and it sure as hell isn’t going to be you.
The problem with this is that the moment you set out to win an argument, you’ve already lost. You’re no longer in a conversation; you’re in a conflict. A contest. A competition. This means someone’s gonna win and someone’s gotta lose. You’re now just trying to protect the territory of your position, so that you can protect the space around your ego from being undermined.
You’re trying to change someone else’s mind in order to protect your own. Ever notice how hard it is to change someone’s mind, or convince them of something? It’s very ineffective. It’s a big old waste of time, generally speaking.
There are a lot of things to disagree on right now. I mean, there are always plenty of things to disagree on, all the time. Case in point: can you believe that some people prefer black licorice? I know, right? Blasphemy!
You know what it means if someone likes black licorice and you prefer red? NOTHING. I mean, maybe it might mean you don’t need to share your candy, which is really a win in my books.
Obviously, there are more pressing disagreements in our world than candy. There are very real issues that need addressing, and the outcome of those conversations have very serious implications and consequences. Just for fun, mention the word “vaccine” literally anywhere in the world and see what happens. I dare you.
But look; if we can’t disagree, then we can’t listen very well, or certainly not long enough to understand the position of the person we turn into an opponent. If we can’t listen to a different opinion, let alone understand it, then we can’t talk about the issue; all we can do is fight about it, and shout rebuttals and insults over the wall at each other, protecting our territorial righteousness.
We are smarter than that.
Relax. Allow yourself to disagree with others without needing anything to be different. Your opinion or theirs.
If you want to really win, stop believing it’s possible to lose. Stop turning disagreements into arguments and conflict, and then wondering why you feel unsafe and under attack.
Learn to practice the lost art of disagreement, and let people be wrong, including yourself, without it meaning anything at all. Your central nervous system will thank you, and then maybe, just maybe, we can get to work changing this world for the better, instead of arguing about it.