Wright Foundation | March 19, 2019

Can We Agree to Disagree and Still Get Along?

Today, there’s a lack of dialogue and productive disagreement.

How do you agree to disagree on important topics (like politics) and still preserve a relationship with your family and friends?

Many people stick to the idea that we can’t find common ground on anything if we don’t agree on a topic. There’s no more agree to disagree consensus.

What is driving all this disagreement? Is conflict necessarily bad? And if we disagree, how do we express it openly and honestly without burning a bridge?

If you’re wondering how to agree to disagree (and still get along) with your friends and family, it’s important to get real with yourself first.

Are You Adding to the Problem?

We’re seeing a shift away from agreeing to disagree. The question is, can we disagree and still come to understand and respect each other?

What people tend to do when there’re an argument and oppositional culture is to become uninterested in nuance culture. Either the other person is good or bad; right or wrong.

Leon Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory says we get stuck in an immature psychological development where we seek consistency among our beliefs on opinions. Whenever there’s a dissonance or inconsistency, we try to change our way of thinking back to this idea of black and white, right and wrong, good and bad.

When we look at disagreements, many people can’t see any angle to reach a consensus. We can’t accept there are kernels of truth within someone’s viewpoint, if it doesn’t align with our own.

To touch on the political topic of the day, look at the people who attack the president. While there are a great number of controversial actions he’s taken, there are some good, intelligent actions he’s taken too (albeit not so eloquently). But for most people who disagree with him, they refuse to even admit any positives.

The same goes for the other side, too. A student I was working with has a father who’s a big industrialist and he completely disagrees with anyone who has even a slightly liberal point-of-view. Instantly, those people are automatically discounted and dismissed.

Unfortunately, we’re living in a time when the United States, and the world as a whole, needs to engage in dialogue. Conflict is productive and positive. It moves us toward what we want and helps us to reach a mutually satisfactory state. The problem is, we’re in a situation now where many people completely refuse to get there.

Most issues aren’t simple. They’re nuanced and complex. There’s no simple black and white.

The idea in any disagreement, political or otherwise, is there are always two sides. As we discuss in our book The Heart of the Fight, it takes two to tango when it comes to disagreements. In each conflict, we must learn how to battle responsibly. This means obeying what we call the rules of engagement, including the rule no one gets more than 50% of the blame and everyone is 100% responsible for their own emotions (including happiness).

But what does this really mean? If your uncle brings up a topic you don’t agree with, you may know in your heart of hearts he’s wrong. In fact, you may disagree with everything he’s saying with every fiber in your body.

Here’s the deal, though. People don’t fight with their friends and loved ones simply because they want to be right. You may end up right and still walk away with a destroyed relationship, leaving you empty-handed with a shallow victory.

Instead, we should fight to find common ground. Will you convince your uncle the world is round, the sky is blue, or whatever else he’s disagreeing with you on? No, probably not. Is it worth winning the argument to burn the bridge and destroy your relationship?

In most cases, we would say no. Most of us want to preserve our relationships. This is often why it pisses us off so badly when someone we care about expresses a difference of opinion.

We WANT to find a way to get along, but we also can’t set aside our own thinking of right and wrong long enough to find consensus.

Of course, it also doesn’t mean we should lie about our position, concede, or acquiesce simply because we want to play the peacemaker. This isn’t an honest position and eventually our true feelings will bubble up and resurface.

Instead, it’s important we fight honestly and fight fair. We take responsibility for our role in the conflict. If it’s a debate, we lay out the ground rules before we start discussing the topic. Maybe it’s announcing we probably won’t come to a consensus, but it’s important to us the other party listens to us respectfully and we plan to do the same for them. We’ll consider their evidence thoughtfully and respectfully.

When Attacks Get Personal

What happens when attacks turn ad hominem and personal? There are many times when we’re debating someone on a topic and suddenly the conversation turns from, “I don’t agree with your statement because of X, Y, and Z,” to “You’re an idiot.”

As soon as attacks get personal, we may want to put up the stop sign. We can let the other party know we plan to listen to them with respect and in turn, we expect they will listen to us with the same consideration.

Then what do we do? We stick to our agreement. We may want to explain why this topic is so important to us, why it strikes a nerve; how we feel about the other person, including why we care about them and why it’s important to us we reach common ground.

Today, there’s a tendency to remove debate and dialogue from our discussion. As soon as there’s a point of contention or conflict, people are ready to flip the table and storm out of the room. There’s nothing wrong with feeling angry or upset toward someone if you disagree with them on a topic, but it’s important we express our feelings honestly.

Always come back to the larger vision of your relationship. Do you want your mother, father, or brother to agree with you on the current political climate because you want their support? Is it because you love and respect them and therefore want them to acknowledge your point of view and validate it?

This may or may not happen. Unfortunately, in some cases, you may end up at a point where you simply agree to disagree and change the subject in order to preserve the relationship. As long as you’re honest and looking toward the larger vision of how you want your relationship to be, there’s no reason to beat a dead horse, especially if the other party shows no signs of coming around.

How to Agree to Disagree

If you’re ready to reach an agreement to let go of a topic, then it’s important both parties hold up their end of the agreement. When you say you’re going to agree to disagree, that means the little jabs and backbiting or passive-aggressive comments need to be checked at the door.

Many people say, “well, we’ll just have to move on,” but then continue to dwell on the subject at hand. If you are confronted by this type of person, don’t be afraid to pipe up and remind them of the agreement.

Say, “We agreed to put the topic to rest, because we can’t find common ground. When you continue to offer up passive-aggressive comments, I feel angry and I feel like you aren’t keeping with your side of the agreement. If we continue this way, we may damage our relationship, which isn’t something I want.”

Usually, when we lay out our feelings for the other person, it helps them regroup and check where they’re coming from. This type of honesty or “call out” is all we need to do to silence the passive-aggressive comments.

Now, what are the chances they will stop completely? Probably not likely, but as long as you’re holding up your end of the bargain and truly sticking to your word, then agreeing to disagree is a perfectly healthy way to deal with unresolvable conflict on certain topics, but it must be done in a respectful manner.

There has likely never been a time when dialogue has been more important. We see it in issues of race, economics, and especially politics. We need to actively engage on important topics like the environment, economic disparity, healthcare, and addressing issues of equality. Yet, we get so stuck in this state of expressing our opinions the conversation degrades and becomes a hot mess before we ever find a productive ground.

It’s important that we express our feelings openly and honestly in all interactions. Part of authenticity is being true to who we are and saying what we feel. When we try to hide our feelings or suppress anger, it will likely erupt at inopportune times and in other ways.

Instead, speak honestly and tell the truth. Let the other party know how you feel. If you face a difference of opinion and reach an impasse (but want to preserve the relationship), agree to disagree and move on.  Go into the conversation agreeing not to simply disagree, but to walk away with a greater understanding and respect for each other.

For more ways to express your feelings, please visit the Wright Foundation. Join us for an upcoming More Life Training weekend, where you’ll learn how to live a life of more purpose, personal power, and meaning. Go forth and ignite your world with truth.

The Wright Foundation for the Realization of Human Potential is a leadership institute located in Chicago, Illinois. Wright Living performative learning programs are integrated into the curriculum at Wright Graduate University.