How to Cordially Disagree

In the last fifty years in this country we have learned to question many of the social rules thatonce required women, children and subordinate staff, for example, to be politely reticent and to defer to other people’s opinions before their own. But now reticence and deference are so far out of fashion that any individual may feel it is their right to express their feelings, preferences and prejudices loudly and publicly, and to feel aggrieved if anyone questions their point of view, or hurt if they positively disagree with it. 

Television drama has made it seem normal for people to scream at each other, and the media fosters a combative approach to discussion. We have encouraged a culture of aggression instead of helping each other to be more confidently assertive. Disagreement is inevitable in a world of rich variety and complex individual freedoms. It is certainly gratifying and encouraging when other people share your ideas, but we all benefit from hearing other ways of thinking, and from checking our beliefs against facts and alternative viewpoints. The Quaker principle offers a healthy basis for good communication: “Think it possible that you may be mistaken.” You may think it very possible that the other person may be mistaken, too. But there are more effective ways to disagree than by arguing; or by carefully avoiding the topic or the person you do not agree with.

The two big mistakes people commonly make are to suppose that they need to suppress their own views for fear of upsetting the other person; or that they have to be aggressive to uphold their values and beliefs. Aggression will indeed upset the other person, and demonstrates a failure of communication. Assertiveness acknowledges the right of others to have and to express their point of view, without belittling your own.

Aggression interprets disagreement as a declaration of war, and its purpose is to intimidate. It resorts to Trumpish name calling: “If I don’t like what you are doing or saying, you must be mad/stupid/evil/a bad person/out to get me/WRONG!” Aggression is intent on browbeating the other person into giving way, or on achieving a personal advantage. Aggression accuses: “You always…You never…Why can’t you..?”

Assertiveness, on the other hand, expresses its position without fear or apology. It has no need to score points. Its purpose is to clarify preferences, maintain mutual respect and find common ground. It is an adult approach, while aggression is childish or bullying. It will defend a position, without getting on the defensive.

Assertiveness invites a dialogue: “What is your point of view?”

Assertiveness listens, and finds something to acknowledge or any area of common ground. It looks for any chance to say “You are right, at least in this respect,” instead of an altogether dismissive “You are just wrong.”

Assertiveness does not assume that you know what the other person believes or wants, but checks: “So if I understand you…? Have I got that right?”

And assertiveness explains: “This is how I see it…”

Assertiveness states a position and invites a conversation. It does not tell the other what they should or shouldn’t do, or what is wrong with them.

None of this comes naturally. We have been socialised into avoiding confrontation, or into seeing confrontation as a fight to be right, rather than a comparing of ideas. It is not easy to speak out when you disagree, or when you are bothered by someone else’s attitude or behaviour. But assertiveness can be learned. It is astonishing how unexpected solutions can emerge, when the will is there to be true to your own values and flexible enough to honour someone else’s.

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