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Ways to Respectfully Disagree

If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that many people in the U.S. have no idea how to respectfully disagree (and that you can never have too much toilet paper, but that’s another story). As an election year, 2020 brought us seemingly endless debates—between the candidates on TV, between our friends on social media, and maybe even between ourselves and friends or family members over the dinner table. Too many of these arguments turned nasty, quickly. That’s frustrating to me, because I know that there are, in fact, ways to respectfully disagree.

Why it’s important to respectfully disagree

In my opinion, learning to respectfully disagree is one of the most important things we can do as human beings trying to share this planet of ours. Because here’s the thing: disagreements are inevitable. There’s absolutely no way that we’re going to agree on everything. In fact, it seems as though we can’t get everyone to agree on anything

Since total alignment and agreement are out of the question, we’re left with a choice: do we disagree respectfully, or do we disagree disrespectfully? Here’s why it’s important to choose the former.

Refusal to understand the other side is dangerous.

When we don’t listen to each other, tempers tend to flare and emotions tend to boil over. That risks big blow ups or confrontations. While that may not be physically dangerous on a small scale, the refusal to listen on a large scale, over a long period of time, can result in violence and disaster. 

People are more willing to listen to a respectful person.

Trying to convince someone of something? I can tell you this: shouting and name calling will get you nowhere. In fact, it will probably just cement in their mind that you are deranged and don’t know what you’re talking about. If you want people to listen to you, showing respect is the way to make that happen.

Respect is more likely to lead to compromise.

Similarly, disagreeing respectfully opens the door to compromise. It’s difficult to concede to even part of an argument when the other person has been rude to you.

You might learn something.

This one might be hard to swallow, but hear me out. This might come as a shock to you, but I’ve got news for you: you aren’t right about everything. No one is. We all still have a lot to learn and a long way to go on our journey as human beings. When you disagree respectfully, you will be more open to taking in new ideas, and those ideas might (just might) change your mind about something. 

It’s the kind thing to do.

Yes, it’s impossible to get everyone to agree on something, but I’ve found that most people still think of kindness as a good thing. Kindness is also a lost art (really lost, if you’re talking about social media debates. Yikes.). But showing respect during a disagreement also shows a commitment to kindness—something that the world could certainly use more of. 

Why respectfully disagreeing is hard

Sure, we might all recognize the value of respectful disagreement. But chances are, we also can probably think of a dozen exceptions to the rule. 

“I can be respectful to most people, but not to [x].”
“I respectfully disagree with a lot of that party’s values, but [y] is impossible to respect.”
“[Z] is where I draw the line. If someone wants to argue about that, I don’t care—I’ll get mean.”

I can’t tell you how many comments exactly like that I saw this year. You probably saw them, too. 

The thing is, we all have values, and those values are very dear to us. Not only that, but they make perfect sense to us. We can’t fathom how anyone could possibly think differently. So when someone does, it seems so nonsensical, so illogical, that we can’t help but speak out against them. And because we’re so passionate about it, it often comes out as argumentative. 

It’s human nature to want to stand up for the things that are really important to you. And it’s hard to understand that someone on the other side of the aisle might have perfectly good reasons for feeling the way they do. 

Hard, but not impossible.

Ways to respectfully disagree

Which brings us to ways to respectfully disagree. I believe that if we could adopt even some of these practices, our interactions would be more pleasant, our government would be more effective, and we’d all feel a lot happier and a lot more charitable toward each other.

Listen

If I could only give one tip on this topic, it would be this: listen. That’s it. Listening—really listening, not just hearing—dissolves tension and helps to put hard feelings at ease. I once heard someone say that people shout when they feel like they aren’t being listened to. It makes sense, if you think about it.

If you think you know everything that the other person could possibly say, you probably don’t. Ask questions. Get curious. Commit to hearing the other person out. Respond to their arguments thoughtfully. Take them seriously. If they feel like they’re being listened to, you’re more likely to have a productive discussion.

Stick to the facts

Facts are your best friends when it comes to making a compelling yet respectful argument. Why? Because facts are:

  • Indisputable. Facts can be proven. They aren’t swayed or altered by opinion. They don’t require your approval. A fact is a fact.
  • Neutral. Facts inherently don’t take sides. In and of themselves, facts aren’t “good” or “bad.” They’re just what happened or what is indisputably true.

The tricky part of this comes when we realize that not everything we think is a fact is actually a fact. Anything that assumes value (“It’s good that [x] happened”) or intent (“They did that because…”) is no longer a fact. 

When trying to respectfully disagree, stick to the facts as much as possible. By doing this, you keep your arguments in a neutral zone, so they’re less likely to be interpreted as personal attacks. And speaking of….

Avoid personal attacks

When you make things personal, they tend to get ugly. A personal attack is not a good way to get your point across, nor is it part of a respectful disagreement. 

Personal attacks draw the focus away from the facts, and instead place them on the person you’re arguing with. They might sound like:

  • “You only think that because you’re liberal.”
  • “You’re such a sheep.”
  • “Are you seriously that blind?”
  • “You can’t possibly think that.”

Of course, personal attacks can be more subtle than that, too.

  • “Anyone who voted for them is an idiot.”
  • “I seriously can’t understand people who think that’s a good idea.”
  • “I have nothing in common with that group.”
  • “They make me so angry!”

If you know the other person belongs to these groups that you’re referencing, then you’re basically attacking them and their beliefs.

Avoid personal attacks by sticking to the facts, and by focusing on your own interpretations or feelings, and why you feel that way. For example:

  • “I didn’t vote for that proposition because I feel strongly about keeping taxes low.”
  • “I feel scared when I see rioting on TV; it makes me feel like our nation is becoming less civil.”
  • “I read an article that made me feel better about that new law. Want me to share it with you?”

The more you can stay in your own lane when it comes to your feelings and beliefs, the less likely you’ll be to resort to personal attacks, and the more effective your arguments will become.

Stay calm

When you adamantly disagree with someone, it can be really hard to keep your emotions out of it. But remaining calm is one of the best things you can do to show the other person you want to engage in a civil discussion, rather than a heated debate. 

When you feel yourself getting riled up or wanting to be sarcastic or mean, your emotions are getting the better of you. It might be time to step away from the conversation until you can cool off a bit and come back with a level head. 

Know your limits

Knowing your limits is another important part of a respectful disagreement. This could mean a couple of things.

First of all, you should know your limits when it comes to the topics you will and will not engage in. For example, maybe you’re willing to talk about some political subjects (like taxes) but not others (like abortion). The topics you feel most passionately about are also probably the ones you’ll have a hard time staying calm about.

Also, know your limits when it comes to timing and your mood. If you’re already having a bad day or a hard time, it’s probably not the best time to start an argument about an important topic. 

Finally, know your limits when it comes to your emotions. It’s okay to walk away from an argument if you feel your temper flaring or some other emotion rising. Be aware of how you feel during the disagreement. Leave when you need to. 

Argue your side instead of tearing theirs down

This ties in with some of the other points I’ve already made, but it’s worth stating explicitly. If you want to respectfully disagree with someone, focus on your own beliefs and opinions, instead of theirs. Center your arguments around why you feel the way you do. Talk about why you think you’re right, rather than why you think they’re wrong. 

Assume the best about the other person

When someone disagrees with us, it’s easy to assume the worst about them. Maybe we think they’re less educated than we are, or they simply haven’t thought the problem through, or they are just following what their social circles want them to think. 

Putting the other person down in this way isn’t showing respect to them. If you want to have a respectful mindset about the person and the disagreement, choose to assume the best. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Consider that maybe they have done the research necessary to form a well-informed opinion. Think about their specific circumstances that might cause them to think the way they do. 


While “respectful disagreement” may sound like an oxymoron (especially since we’re so used to heated debates these days), the fact is that there are ways to respectfully disagree. If you can bring these methods into your next argument, you’re more likely to have a conversation that is productive, meaningful, and insightful.

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