Get out of the ring…and other ideas
By Jonny Potts
I’m not great in an argument. I’m hesitant to speak up, I panic when I’m asked questions, and I think of all my best retorts a week later. Luckily, the subject of this article is not ‘How To Win an Argument.’ It’s ‘How To Disagree Well.’ But what are the key differences?
Let me give you an example of an unhealthy disagreement. A few years ago, a great debate broke out across the world that split the population in two. Brother turned against brother. Insults were hurled. Sides were taken. I am, of course, talking about the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Whatever side of the argument you fall on (great piece of art or a blight on the Star Wars franchise) you can surely admit that, in the immediate aftermath of its release, the internet was not a fun place to be. The two sides of the argument frequently didn’t listen to each other, and the attacks got way too personal. Hopefully this article will help us to avoid making those same mistakes!
Look, division will happen, and that is not a bad thing. Jesus promises it (“Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” Luke 12.51). But when it inevitably comes, how do we disagree healthily?
1. Get Out of the Ring
If you only remember one thing from this article, this should be it. This is the soil from which every other principle about having healthy disagreements blooms.
We need to ask ourselves, are we pursuing truth, or just trying to win an argument?
When we reach a disagreement in conversation, the temptation is to make it a boxing match. We want to win, and we’re prepared to fight a little dirty to do it. We’ll exploit our opponent’s weakness, work in a few low blows, do anything to emerge the victor. But if we win the day by forsaking a friendship, it is a hollow victory.
We need to get out of the ring. Disagreeing about a topic should be a collaborative pursuit of the truth. If we’re just trying to get a KO, we’re making it all about ourselves. This comes at the expense of the other person and, indeed, of truth itself.
So what is the practical outworking of this? Well, for starters…
2. Seek to Understand, Not to Criticise
To make a start on pursuing truth, the first step is to get curious. Ask clarifying questions. Listen attentively. Make sure the other person feels heard. It’s good to seek genuine understanding, leaving the door open for the two of you to discover the truth together.
Even if fresh questions or prompts don’t come easily, we can always fall back on some reliable favourites:
‘That’s interesting. Tell me more about why you think that!’
3. Be Generous
This doesn’t just mean footing the coffee bill, although that can sometimes be a good idea too. Often, when we come across an opinion we don’t share, it’s easy to conclude that the person hasn’t really thought about their position or that their convictions are weak. However, this isn’t necessarily the case. It’s important to show respect for them and for what they think, and we can do this by dipping into a bit of research!
Read books, listen to podcasts, ask good questions. Engage with different points of view. Seek to understand a point of view before countering it. By the end, we should be able to make a stronger case for our opponent’s position than they can.
4. Don’t get personal
A short one, but an important one. Remember, we shouldn’t attack the person we’re talking to. This will just contribute to a breakdown in communication. Personal remarks will not get us any further in exploring the ideas on the table, which are the only real things in conflict.
5. Embrace being wrong
We all make mistakes. We all get things wrong sometimes. Failure is a great teacher. We might ‘lose’ the argument and end up learning something new, or having a richer understanding of something, or even growing in friendship with the other person. Accept that this will happen, and enjoy it! Being right all the time will not help us grow. Being wrong will.
If I admit to having made a mistake, it will communicate that I have the grace and integrity to adapt, and that I value the truth. It also shows that I respect the other person. Even if they ask a question about my position that I don’t know the answer to, simply saying, ‘I don’t know. Let me find out!’ demonstrates humility and the fact that I take them and their questions seriously. But when we do this, we need to make sure we actually go and find it out.
6. Make yourself heard
These might all sound like good tips for making the other person feel heard, but don’t let the pendulum swing too far one way! If only one person is sharing, it’s too one-sided to be a healthy disagreement! We need to communicate our position honestly and with boldness. Set expectations early on that allow both participants time to share their initial thoughts. If not, the other person will miss out on hearing our perspective, which would be a shame, because it would mean that they miss out on an opportunity to learn and grow too. So, make sure to say what you think!
7. Let love lead
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” Matthew 5:9.
Ultimately, we are all broken people working through problems together. The only one with a monopoly on the truth is God Himself. And He calls us to love others:
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” John 15:12.
So whatever we do, we must do it in love. We want to live peaceably with people, and this doesn’t mean avoiding disagreements. Because sometimes people really do need to be challenged (and that includes us)! But the endpoint should be to discover the truth together, and to experience mutual growth as a result. So, approach disagreements with a healthy curiosity, humility, openness and love.