In these contentious times it’s important to remember that disagreements and differences of opinion aren’t zero sum games, battles to be won at all costs.

“Disagreement stems from differing points of view that may be anchored in deep-seated beliefs that each hold dear,” writes John Baldoni, internationally recognized leadership educator and author of 14 books. “The challenge is to put aside the animus and respect one another as sentient and capable. We can feel, and we can decide.”

Erisology, a term that first made its appearance in The Atlantic last year, is the study of destructive arguments, or, as the term’s creator John Nerst described it, “unsuccessful disagreement”. An unsuccessful disagreement is an exchange where people are no closer in understanding at the end than they were at the beginning, meaning the exchange has been mostly about talking past each other and/or hurling insults.”

These types of unsuccessful disagreements have always existed. In centuries past, they were constrained by the educated classes who were trained in the art of rhetoric and debate. The internet and the anonymity it offers loosened the rules and broadened the reach of zealots. As discussions grew more strident, they also often became more personal and adversarial.

Says Baldoni, “The reasons [for the stridency] are speculative — social media and the abnegation of fact — but the results are people believe what they want to believe and, in doing so, end up in separate camps. Such distancing is not healthy for our culture.”

What’s to be done? Baldoni’s prescription is personal:

  1. Do not pre-judge. See the person as an individual who has a point of view and not as a combatant.
  2. Listen carefully. “Invite the other to speak first. Stay calm, breath regularly and relax your facial muscles. Take a point the other has said and use it as an opening for a new line of discussion.”
  3. Argue dispassionately. Look for common ground. There is almost always something on which the two of you can agree. Then “use that commonality as a bridge to finding understanding.”

Following his advice isn’t easy, he admits, “These three steps, while easy to state, can be difficult to implement when tempers flare and more difficult still when people feel their values are under siege.” But as he says, these are tools that can be used to return civility to our disagreements.

“Our challenge is to put them to good use.”

Photo by Mad Fish Digital on Unsplash


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