By Joe Walton
We all know the feeling. Your heart starts to race. Your palms get sweaty. Your blood rushes to your face. I’m actually not describing a heart attack. I’m talking about a disagreement.
Disagreements creep into all areas of our lives. Perhaps you made what you thought was an innocent comment on social media, or maybe you shared a seemingly innocuous opinion over a family dinner. Suddenly you find yourself in an all-out, winner-take-all brawl over the color of a dress or how toasted you like your toast. It might even get so heated you resort to turning to the sacred text of all trivial tantrums—Wikipedia.
Our disagreements cover a whole gamut of topics: Ford or Chevy, Coke or Pepsi, Calvinist or Arminian, Apple or Android, Republican or Democrat. Our differences of opinion rarely remain cordial exchanges but often devolve into violent battles of wit until the winner emerges and the loser is thoroughly castigated to the cheers of the virtual colosseum. To avoid this, many resort to the anonymity that social media provides or they withdraw from the conversation altogether.
Lifeway Research found in a 2019 study that most Americans with evangelical beliefs value civility. And if we follow certain principles in our social interactions, our disagreements can present healthy opportunities to both dispense and receive grace.
As Dr. Michael Svigel, professor of Systematic Theology at Dallas Theological Seminary, observes, “Avoiding disagreement can often rob people of this opportunity for growth and grace. I’ve known people who ‘up and leave’ a church or relationship as soon as they start to feel a little friction due to disagreements. The better approach would be to work through those disagreements, if at all possible.”
Understanding the following seven principles can help us do the hard work of disagreeing well.
1. We don’t know everything.
Economist and social theorist Thomas Sowell once said, “It takes considerable knowledge just to realize the extent of your own ignorance.” Humility must precede all healthy learning and dialogue. An awareness of our own limitations will not only force us to take a more humble stance ourselves but also compel us to grant grace to our fellow human beings.An awareness of our own limitations will not only force us to take a more humble stance ourselves but also compel us to grant grace to our fellow human beings. — @historybuff50 Click To Tweet
We all feel the urge to appear faultless and all-knowing in front of others. We have a natural revulsion for the three little words, “I don’t know.” We affirm intellectually that humans possess limited capabilities as a general rule, but in our daily lives we seek to maintain the aura of omniscience.
In contrast, we should approach every discussion with the assumption that we can learn something from the other person, or at the very least, their input may help expose an error in our own thinking.
2. Unrealistic expectations hinder good debate.
Two people don’t have to talk for long before they discover they disagree about something. And yet, disagreements always seem to surprise us. We bristle at the audacity of someone to counter our hastily drawn and tenuously held conclusions. How dare they! In reality, it should surprise us if we agree and concern us if we always agree.We should prefer healthy disagreement to blind conformity. — @historybuff50 Click To Tweet
Svigel even suggests we should welcome disagreement: “Though I don’t relish the experience of disagreeing, I invite disagreement as an important part of being finite, fallen humans grasping after truth.” If we abandon our unrealistic expectations of complete agreement, we will avoid the jolting shock when someone thinks differently. In fact, we should prefer healthy disagreement to blind conformity.
3. We must differentiate between essentials and non-essentials.
Part of the problem with our conversations lies in our inability to decide which “hills to die on.” Social media has multiplied our choices exponentially. A cursory scrolling of Twitter will open one up to innumerable opportunities to wax eloquent on even the most trivial issues.
Want to share that diatribe on the merits of biting your ice cream cone instead of licking it? Or what about that theory you have on the correlation between talking to pets and psychosis? Surely someone, somewhere waits with bated breath to hear your opinion. But what if these opinions don’t warrant sharing? Could we possibly think something but not say it out loud?Distinguishing essential beliefs from the non-essential will do much to generate grace in our disagreements. — @historybuff50 Click To Tweet
Of course, some things should be shared and defended, but the number probably comprises a much smaller list than most of us realize. Deciding what constitutes our essential beliefs will help us avoid unnecessary conflict. Theologians do this all the time.
“I personally believe that if we can instruct the people in our churches to differentiate foundational, identity-forging dogmas of the faith from non-foundational doctrines, this wisdom will continue to pay dividends for years to come. It will not eliminate the frequency and severity of conflicts in our churches, but it will greatly decrease them. And when they do occur, it will give us a common framework within which to evaluate the urgency and importance of the disputes.”
Distinguishing essential beliefs from the non-essential in all aspects of life will do much to generate grace in our disagreements.
4. Establishing points of agreement builds rapport and congeniality.
Few things give us warm and fuzzy feelings like when someone agrees with us. We feel validated and appreciated. Unfortunately, human nature often moves us to skip over points of agreement and cut right to points of controversy. We shouldn’t do this. Disagreeing well begins with acknowledging what each person has in common.Too often, we assign the worst motives to our opponents and interpret every stance they take through a sinister lens. — @historybuff50 Click To Tweet
For example, before embarking on a debate over illegal immigration, consider finding points of agreement—human rights, national security, etc. Too often, we assign the worst motives to our opponents and interpret every stance they take through a sinister lens. Instead, we should assume that they have honorable motives and quickly recognize any good points they might make. This builds mutual respect and rapport—ingredients crucial to disagreeing well.
5. Active listening shows respect and open-mindedness.
Have you ever gotten the feeling when talking to some people that they are just waiting for you to stop speaking so they can say something? Active listening takes hard work. It involves giving someone your undivided attention—something many of us have in short supply these days. It also means listening to what the person actually says as opposed to what your own biased interpretation hears. If their argument doesn’t hold up, you can best show this through careful reason and analysis of their position—not by mischaracterizing it.If an argument doesn’t hold up, you can best show this through careful reason and analysis of the position—not by mischaracterizing it. — @historybuff50 Click To Tweet
We all have a tendency to try and pigeon-hole our opponents. Once we know what category to put them in—Democrat, Republican, atheist, etc.—we can then contend with our own preconceived notions of what they probably think. Rather than think critically and respond in the moment, we move the conversation into more familiar territory. Tempers begin to flare as both sides start to spew prefabricated talking points and stop listening to each other. To avoid this, we should listen intently to what someone says and respond thoughtfully.
6. Unchecked emotions often hamper good discussion.
Disagreements almost always stir our emotions. We take dissension as a personal attack. No matter the topic, when someone says, “I disagree with you,” our instincts tell us to fire back with a witty slight or cutting retort. We feel anger or embarrassment, especially if an audience looks on.Disagreeing well involves fighting the urge to allow our emotions to dictate our speech. — @historybuff50 Click To Tweet
Disagreeing well, however, involves fighting the urge to allow our emotions to dictate our speech. After all, a dissenting opinion alone does not prove anything. By responding calmly, we can deescalate the situation and, in many cases, earn the respect of the dissenter. As the proverb says, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”
Anger does not mix well with good debate, as it clouds our thinking and impairs our inhibitions. To disagree well, we must control our emotions and avoid seeing all conflict as a personal attack.
7. The relationship takes precedence over winning the argument.
Although ad hominin attacks may get laughs in movies and a pass on the playground, they have devastating effects in serious conversations. Disagreeing well requires that we distinguish between the person and their argument. Every person we come into contact with has dignity and deserves respect. Opinions may come and go, but the individual is eternal. Therefore, we must never devalue the person with whom we disagree.Opinions may come and go, but the individual is eternal. Therefore, we must never devalue the person with whom we disagree. — @historybuff50 Click To Tweet
Svigel warns, however, against compromising too much: “Many will likely face a decision between essential, central, foundational truths and maintaining a relationship. In that case, a relationship built on falsehood isn’t much of a relationship. Yet most of the time our disagreements aren’t over the bedrock kinds of issues, so we should proceed with care.”
Disagreeing well takes grace. In a world of tweets and soundbites slander often becomes the simplest method. But if we humble ourselves and accept the rarity and value of true agreement, we can begin to listen intently to what the other person says. Rather than die on a thousand hilltops, we can check our emotions and determine our most essential beliefs. We can emphasize what we agree on and build a relationship with our opponent.
Joe is a student at Dallas Theological Seminary in the Master of Theology program. He taught high school history for five years in Virginia and Tennessee.