How to Agree to Disagree

People will sometimes disagree; if it’s not done correctly, you may lose respect and credibility. According to Merriam-Webster means, and I quote, “1) a: to concur in (something, such as an opinion): Admit, concede b: to consent to as a course of action c: to settle on by common consent: Arrange.” They refer to Disagree as, and I quote: “1) to fail to agree, to differ in opinion, 3) to cause discomfort or distress.” Did you recently have an argument or debate with someone that elicited disrespect? Throughout this article, I will discuss something people may have to do several times without feeling bad.

The phrase “agree to disagree” was first pioneered in 1770 at the death of George Whitefield when John Wesley wrote a memorial to illustrate that the two men’s principle differences were small stuff. Many people let minor differences of opinion brew into aggressive arguments, which become unnecessary verbal and physical respect. Anytime someone disagrees with a person about their lifestyle, beliefs, political opinion, or attitude, there is always that chance the other will become upset. Thus, the situation must be handled tactfully and with the highest level of respect to prevent a blowup. Whether personal or business, you will find that these techniques will keep you off thin ice. 

One way to ensure that the person you disagree with doesn’t take your comment as disrespectful is not to make it personal. Even if it is a private matter, always talk about it in terms of the behavior, not that a person is doing or not acting in a particular manner. For example, “I understand, Jim, that you think we don’t need to change our supplier because they have been with us for years; however, the number of complaints keeps growing each month they serve us.” Please keep your discussion or polite debate about the facts at hand, not what you feel or attempt to project on the other what they feel. If I had said something like: “Jim, I know you want to keep the current supplier because they drop off chocolate cakes every holiday, and I don’t think you need to eat any more cake anyway, plus they disappoint us on every order.” That type of statement is a dig, and he would take that as an attack and, yes, retaliate with a nasty comment.

Notice that when I used the I statement, it was received less as an attack but as facts that were not against him or his beliefs but focused on behaviors. Using I statements is a great way to shift emphasis from the blame of their behavior to how it affects you, which will be much more willingly received by the other party. 

Whether it is someone of a higher or lower authority than you, take the time to hear them out completely without trying to stick your two cents in while they are talking. If you don’t understand where they are coming from, imagine taking off your shoes and putting on theirs. Next, envision the situation from their point of view, which may allow you to see why they made that decision even though you disagree. 

Avoid placing any judgment against anyone else’s core values. Maybe you hear an idea from a co-worker that you feel is terrible; don’t say it is stupid. Instead, say, “That is an interesting perspective, and I don’t agree with that and why.” People will always go into fight or flight mode when feeling threatened. Thus, keep communication open, respectable, listen, and allow yourself to accept their answer even if you disagree with it. You may disagree that gas prices have increased, but you can accept it. 

People argue aggressively because they may be passionate about the discussed topic. Does that mean you can’t be passionate about something in a debate; no, but one does need to temper it if it is agitating the other person. A discussion or argument aims to hear both parties’ thoughts to devise a compromise rationally. Often when a settlement can’t be reached, a stalemate is rendered, thus agreeing to disagree politely. Should you notice the other person raising their voice, step back, lower your voice, and tone down your passion which will often get them to calm down. 

The other night I was at a Talk by Bishop Flesey from my Most Blessed Sacrament Church, sharing his annual stories of wisdom. While I have heard him preach great homilies many times at church, this was different as I learned about another side of him. Before speaking, he said I only share observations; if you disagree, they are ok. They are not opinions but things I have observed throughout my life. This inspired me to look at people’s thoughts as observations; in that way, they don’t affect our emotions.

When people have a conversation where an agreement or disagreement is made, these results because of a perspective one has developed consciously or unconsciously. This reminds me of a story about three blind men that discovered an elephant for the first time. Each man reached out their hand to the elephant. The first man came in contact with the elephant’s trunk saying, and I quote, “An elephant is long and wiggly, like a snake” The next man disagreed as he reached the elephant’s stomach saying, and I quote, “No, an elephant is like a wall, tall and strong.” Then the third man also didn’t agree with the other two as he touched the elephant’s tail saying, and I quote, “How can this be? An elephant is thin and tough, like a rope. 

Perspective is the key to understanding this story and life, as everyone may see something differently depending on their experience. Thus, everyone in this story was correct since they all stood at other places and observed or experienced different things. Understanding that agreeing to disagree is healthy and part of free will is vital. Remember to be respectful, put on their shoes proverbially, and experience the situation from other viewpoints. When we agree to disagree, one accepts the other’s opinion or decision even though their perspective is different.


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