The Gentleman’s Guide To Disagreement

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The Gentleman’s Guide To Disagreement

Words by Mr Ian Hsieh

15 April 2020

Disagreements. Arguments. Squabbles. Whatever you call them, they’re an inescapable fact of life – much like climate change or the importance of good mental health. The problem is, most of us spend our lives trying to avoid confrontation, believing it to be counterproductive to, well, just about everything. After all, why get mired in a discourse about Brexit with your coworker when you could simply ignore them, avoid the aggravation and get on with your day?

As it turns out, the reasons are manifold – not least because disregarding people you vehemently disagree with is easier said than done. There’s too much resentment. And what if those you disagree with are those closest to you? It stands to reason that disagreeing in the most productive way possible is a smarter course of action.

“If you think back to most of your friendships and family relationships, there’s oftentimes a handful of core disagreements that you’re going to have over and over again,” says Mr Buster Benson, author of the newly published Why Are We Yelling? A former product manager for technology giants, including Twitter and Slack, Mr Benson has spent the last 20 years facilitating productive communication between people and teams that have vastly different interests and motivations. And according to him, there’s a better way forward.

It all begins with looking at disagreement in a different light. For example, what if instead of seeing it in purely negative terms, we embraced it as an opportunity to foster stronger relationships, better work and a deeper sense of self? With that in mind, we spoke with Mr Benson to find out how we can navigate life’s altercations accompanied by feelings of enlightenment – rather than bitterness, frustration and, well, rage.

01. Is it your head, heart or hands?

We’ve all had arguments where it seems as if we’re running around in circles – that the other person just doesn’t comprehend what we’re trying to say, and never will. Mr Benson believes this happens because we’re not just disagreeing on something, we’re talking about different things entirely. “What’s really happening is you’re having two different conversations at the same time,” he says. “Almost always there is a mismatch between three kinds of disagreements.”

According to Mr Benson, there are disagreements of the head (logical discussions involving cold, hard facts that can be easily proved right or wrong), disagreements of the heart (where our individual values, beliefs and emotions come into play) and disagreements of the hands (where conflict can only be settled by seeing how things play out, or by a test of some sort). 

The simplest way to make sure we’re having productive disagreements? Be clear with each other on what realm – as Mr Benson calls them – the discussion is taking place in. Solutions that resolve a disagreement in one realm will never work in the other two.

02. Watch how anxiety sparks

Whether it’s improving your performance in the gym or creating good habits, noting down where you are at that moment in time and keeping track of the actions you’re taking as you move forward are essential to progress. And the same is true of productive disagreements.

“Start a disagreement journal,” says Mr Benson. “Any time you’re in an argument, productive or unproductive, write down some notes. What was the thing that sparked anxiety? What was the core value that it was tied to? If you’re in the habit of writing about your arguments, the next time you have one you’ll think, ‘Oh, now that I’ve realised I’m in an argument, I can try something new.’

“Just notice when you enter them,” he continues, “and work it back towards, ‘What is the thing that feels threatened in me?’ You can even ask the person if they meant to threaten that. Build that training, so you can notice when it’s happening.”  

03. Ask open-ended questions

“The thing with most unproductive disagreements is that people are resigned to never actually being asked a question,” says Mr Benson. “When you can be the first example of someone they disagree with – that isn’t a complete jerk to them – it might not change their mind, but at least it puts a little foot in the door.”

So, ask questions. But not any old questions – ask open-ended ones that are conducive to productive disagreement (ie, those that can’t be answered with a “yes” or “no”). For Mr Benson, these are the questions that invite the most surprising answers, which in turn reveal things about the person that we didn’t truly understand before. “It helps you see them less as a demon, and more as a human,” says Mr Benson. Not only that, the person answering will most likely be grateful for the chance to share their true thoughts.

Go-to questions for Mr Benson that invite surprising answers include: “What are the stories that led you to be this kind of person?”; “How has this belief system helped you in your life?” and “If you had your way, how would things be different?”

04. Build arguments together

While it may seem counterintuitive, one of Mr Benson’s favourite ways of disagreeing productively is to completely jump ship and advocate for the other side. To understand their rationale so well, that you can recite it better than they can, which forces you to “step out of the personal nature of the argument”.

“It turns you into a collaborator,” says Mr Benson, “which is disconcerting at first. But once you get the hang of it, it’s really not that hard to do. And it’s fun, because you think, ‘Wow, what other arguments do I totally not get? And how can I build that argument for someone, that forces me to seek out my best opponent on the other side?’” By seeking out the wisest members of an oppositional group to help you explore their argument, you’ll end up with insightful, surprising answers, because those people will have the best information and the most knowledge.

Better yet, Mr Benson recommends enlisting those people to help you build your own argument as well. That way it’s a true collaboration, and the outcome of the argument outweighs the cost of having it in the first place.

05. Treat every disagreement as an opportunity

“We think of arguments as figuring out who is right,” says Mr Benson. “So, we’re taking this magnificent social tool that we’ve had for millennia and we’re using it to settle some kind of ego need. But there’s so much more that can come out of it.”

In Why Are We Yelling? Mr Benson writes about the ancient Greek philosophical concept of aporia. “It was something Socrates came up with, and it was his goal with all disagreements: the pleasure of realising that you don’t know something,” he says. “When we think we know something and we don’t understand why anyone would think otherwise, the world is frustrating and annoying – it feels like everyone is just lame. But when you realise that you don’t know something, suddenly the possibility that there are more perspectives to learn arises and the world is more exciting.

“If you see every conversation in your life as a chance to explore something new, things become much more fun,” he continues. “Every single conversation is a chance to get to know people better. And luckily, we’re surrounded by each other, so there are plenty of chances to do that.” 

Illustration by Mr Iker Ayestaran

The write side of the argument