Agreeing to Disagree

Agreeing to disagree. Reasonable people can disagree. They can disagree on substance or tone or the most efficient way to achieve a goal. But they can’t reasonably disagree without fully understanding the other position.

If you don’t understand a position, you can have an opinion about it but that opinion is uninformed. When you are uninformed or partially informed, you simply can’t know whether you disagree. We know this to the point that have clichés about walking in someone else’s shoes before we judge.

And yet, we have become daily finger-pointing, vilifying, cancel-culturing jerks. Provocative language gains likes, friends, and followers. This encourages bad behavior and makes it tempting to give in to our baser instincts.

It feels good to compare when we receive accolades. It feels terrible to compare when we receive criticism. But chasing accolades for a particular position entrenches us at one level of understanding and prevents growth.

I distinctly remember sitting in a jury room with 11 strangers attempting to determine whether a man assaulted a policeman before stealing his car. On our first vote, I was the lone dissent on a guilty verdict.

During deliberations, I was asked whether or not I watched the show Cops and was told that if I did, I’d understand why the guy was guilty. I was also personally attacked for reading a book during a break. Of course, this criticism was mischaracterized as me reading instead of listening during testimony. These were attempts not just to disagree with me, but to try to shame or push me into a different position. They were both unpleasant and ineffective.

Then there was the jury foreman. He and I were on opposite sides of the argument, but he was thoughtful, respectful, and reasonable. We came at the same set of facts from different points of view and reached different conclusions. I’m sure we were both right on some points. Ultimately, the jury was hung. There simply wasn’t enough proof to put 4 of us beyond a reasonable doubt.

If the situation had been a conference room in which we were discussing policy, the jury foreman and I would have made complimentary team members who broadened understanding and improved the final product. We would still have needed to reach a consensus, but our disagreement would have enriched and improved the process.

And that’s the thing. Disagreement can lead to improvement. But that’s only when we begin by listening to each other. Sometimes, we may discover that we don’t disagree at all. We may just have a different style of communication or use different lingo. Other times, we’ll discover the narrowness of our own point-of-view.

Disagreement can be inspiring. It can introduce new possibilities. It can be respectful and collaborative. But that can only happen when we stop pointing fingers, vilifying, and failing to try to understand another perspective.

I am all for accountability. I understand the desire to respond negatively to ideas that go against our closely held beliefs and values. And I’m not saying that we should agree with everything. But please, for the love of all things good, can we start listening with both our ears and our hearts to each other?

We may need to see the fear behind the bluster or the manipulation behind a benevolent-appearing act. To do this can take time, active listening, and a deeper personal investment than typical posturing allows.

The past two years have made it clear that many systems are broken or on the brink of failure. It will take the input of many voices and many points-of-view to hold things together. And it will take a force of will to look reality in the face and choose to be better.

I believe it’s worth the courage and effort it takes. And I believe in order to improve, we must agree to understand – not just disagree.