The Art to Disagreeing: When It’s Worth It and How To Do It Right

The Art to Disagreeing: When It’s Worth It and How To Do It Right
Credit: MGM, 20th Century

There’s an art to an effective disagreement. No, really. If you and your partner in said disagreement are able to travel through the exchange with respect, a level approach to one another’s comments and manage to land somewhere closer to the middle than when you started, you are doing pretty well, friend.

Two people who understand this better than most, Dr Luara Ferracioli and Dr Samuel Shpall, recently held a workshop titled The Ethics Of… Disagreement. The pair of lecturers in philosophy engaged in an exploration into why we disagree, how we do it and when it’s plainly not worth the trouble.

I was lucky enough to attend the workshop, which was part of a series run by The Ethics Centre, and the discussion got me thinking about the mechanics of a productive disagreement. So, I reached out to Dr Ferracioli and Dr Shpall to pick their brains about how to do that.

The recipe for a successful disagreement

When I asked Dr Ferracioli and Dr Shpall about their thoughts on successful debate over email, they pointed to “philosophical-collegial disagreement” as a “useful model for productive transformations of disagreement”.

They shared that in an academic setting, disagreements between colleagues work particularly well because “in philosophy (when it goes well) we give our interlocutors the benefit of the doubt”.

“We don’t speculate about their ulterior motives. We interpret their views in a charitable way, even if there are less charitable interpretations available,” they said.

When engaging with a viewpoint different to your own, they suggest focusing on “the strongest version” of your peer’s argument. Rather than assume the worst of their opinion, they suggest you pay attention to the points you feel are most valid.

The last point they made here was that you should do your best not to disagreements to heart. Though they understand how difficult that can be.

“…we don’t take disagreement personally. We recognise that questions of value, morality and politics are difficult, and we expect that people will sometimes reach different conclusions. We positively value criticism of our ideas. We take it as a sign of interest, even friendship,” they said.

Okay, but are there cases where a disagreement just isn’t worth it?

This is one of the points that was touched on during the ethics workshop, and while folks held different opinions on this, it was fairly broadly believed that there are some discussions that won’t leave you better off than when you started them.

On this, Dr Ferracioli and Dr Shpall pointed out that disagreements will not work when you’re “not playing the same game”.

They explained:

“For example, we start political inquiry and discussion with the (liberal) assumption that all persons are moral equals. It probably isn’t worth engaging with someone who genuinely believes that men are superior to women, or that white people are superior to people of colour.”

The philosophy lecturers shared that while “we should have a standing policy of charitable interpretation” – in that it’s never beneficial to assume someone’s stance – it simply makes sense “to devote our attention to disagreements where the relevant parties are likely to learn something”. (I.e. people who are open to hearing you out and vice versa.)

If someone enters into a discussion with the intention of steamrolling your thoughts, or quite clearly has no interest in considering your comments, it’s probably not going to be a productive chat.

Overall, we should learn to view disagreements favourably

As Dr Ferracioli and Dr Shpall highlighted earlier on, debate indicates a level of interest in your ideas – that’s a positive thing! But more than that, taking the time to thoughtfully disagree on important topics has been shown to result in better relationships and ideas.

A New York Times piece by Adam Grant in 2017 highlighted that “brainstorming groups generate 16 per cent more ideas when the members are encouraged to criticise one another”. It also spoke to theories suggesting creativity thrives when someone has been exposed to disagreements in their youth.

This isn’t to say we should be engaging in unnecessary arguments for the sake of productivity or success, but it could be suggested that a little bit of healthy debate (when done the right way) can leave all parties better off. So, go on – (respectfully) fight for your views. You’ll probably be better off for it.

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