May 16, 2012

How to Disagree without Being Disagreeable

How to Disagree without Being Disagreeable

It's no secret that political and public discourse has become coarser and less civil over the past few years. Nonetheless, this trend is no excuse for us to become rude or abusive in our everyday interactions with folks.  In fact, now more than ever, we need to take the initiative and set  a good example to reverse this unpleasant development. Politics aside, we need to restore civility to our interpersonal interactions. It is especially is difficult to discuss our differences in a polite and respectful way. Today we are going to explain why and show you how to disagree without being disagreeable.

The Psychology of Disagreement: Why we become disagreeable.
Although it is reasonable that folks differ, emotionally, no one likes disagreement. It would be much easier if we thought alike. The root of the problem lies in our DNA and the feelings of anxiety and being out of control which is created by conflict. We perceive differences as threats to our sense of order and safety.  People become disagreeable to manipulate and eliminate disagreement and thereby re-establish a sense of sameness and control which in turn reduces anxiety.  The problem with this primitive strategy, however, is that it doesn't work. It just makes things worse.

Decoding  Disagreeable behaviors ?

Although folks that are disagreeable sound tough, their uncivil behaviors are really a sign of weakness and insecurity. Here are common tactics and their objectives:  
* Belligerence - Things like a raised voice, threatening words or gestures communicates the message: give in or else.    
* Personal verbal attacks and Name calling and Ad Hominum references ("you're stupid") are strategies to undercut the other person's self-esteem and to distract the discussion away from reasonable issues and inflame emotions.  The goal is to force the other person to give up. Usually it simply results in having the other person fire back his/her own attack.
* Misrepresentation and Exaggeration - Distorting the facts to make our argument look stronger is a common but unethical technique.  
* Obstinacy and being Closed Minded: Refusing to admit or acknowledge either the other side's merit or one's own deficiencies or weaknesses is an unreasonable tactic of disagreeable debate.

Tips for How to Disagree without being Disagreeable
Genetically, we are programmed to deal with conflicts in one of two ways: to win or to lose, to get our way or to give in.  While these kinds of responses are in our primitive neurological structure, there is a third way, a mutually respectful way, to negotiate differences.  Although it may be difficult and certainly takes practice, it can be done. Here are some tips to help you develop this third, win/win way to deal with conflict and differences. If these tips sound obvious, they are, however obvious isn't always easy.  
1) Before you begin a conversation: Check your basic assumptions:
Realize that dealing with conflict civilly is unnatural and requires a special mental effort. Before having a conversation, make sure you are in a reasonable place mentally. Remember, it's OK to disagree, that you don't always have to be right and to give credit to another point of view. No one is all right or all wrong all the time.
2) Be Aware and Monitor your and the other person's remarks. Notice if you or the other person is
becoming unreasonable, e.g. raising his/her voice or name calling.
3) Decode, Translate and Empathize
Don't take things personally. Listen for the feeling message that the words and body language convey. Express understanding of his/her experience.
4) Call time out
If empathic comments don't calm things down and you find that either you or the other person is too upset to speak reasonably, don't try. Call time out and agree to resume the discussion when cooler heads prevail. It works for kids and it works for adults.
5) Don't Force a resolution
Remember you don't have to resolve every dispute. It is OK  to agree to disagree.   

                                                                                                       
Rev. Michael Heath, LMCH has prepared these remarks for Bridge Street 5 14 2012.         

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