On disagreement

I’m going to frame things in terms of beliefs rather than facts. I’m also only trying to delve into a one-on-one interaction. When more than 2 people are involved in a discussion, things get much more complicated. While there’s probably a better chance of constructive dialogue taking place if the discussion is conducted in complete privacy, the real world is usually messier than that. Be aware that trying to engage with another specific individual in any public forum (such as on facebook or other social media platforms) will often distort things due to one or both parties attempting to simultaneously communicate with a larger audience. One of the vexing issues though is that some people will be less willing to honestly engage in private where nobody else is “watching”. And of course there are also rude individuals who will engage in a private dialogue in order to try to “take advantage” in a way that they wouldn’t perhaps do “in public” (though there are obviously some folks who will and do use such techniques in public too) via deception, baiting, gaslighting, downright maliciousness, and/or many other underhanded strategies.

If a person disagrees with me on a matter that I don’t consider important (i.e., it’s not relevant (nor in opposition) to any of my strongly held beliefs), then there’s very little which needs to be dealt with. I should have no problem calmly “agreeing to disagree”.

If however the topic of disagreement is one I care deeply about, my response will often be far more complicated. I’m setting out to try to give myself some direction as to how to proceed in such cases. Feel free to leave your own responses, additions and/or thoughts in the comments below (or email me privately if you wish: I’m charlie dot derr at gmx dot com).

Let’s start by asking a number of questions:

How well do I know this person?
Am I aware of other different topics of (dis)agreement that I may have with this person?
Do I care what this person thinks of me?
Does this person appear to be seriously interested in dialogue?
Do I get a vibe from this person that they would be willing to discuss things in a polite and respectful way?

How strongly do I believe that my position is correct?
Am I interested in perhaps changing my mind if new evidence or information is presented to me?
Is the topic one that taps into my emotions?
Am I capable of respecting a person who holds a different position on this topic than I do?
If yes, fully and universally? Or only within certain limits? If within limits, what are those limits?

I take it for granted that I almost always will want to bring other people around to my own point of view. But it’s probably a better strategy (than pursuing that as an explicit goal) to instead do my best to try and gain understanding of just how and why the other person believes what they do. If I can try to keep an open mind, I may learn a lot (whether or not either one of us ever modifies our own position(s)). This is a large part of the point I make below having to do with the advantages of framing the interaction as a conversation or discussion rather than an argument or debate.

In cases that deeply resonate emtionally, that strike one as crucially important, and/or that one believes strongly one is correct on, the question of “how much argumentation is appropriate?” can be tough to navigate. Some issues seem to “demand” a response (as in, just “letting it go” can seem to be an abdication of one’s very humanity). My own experience (in recent years anyway) is that the limiting factor is my own mental stability. I am capable of getting so involved in certain controversies that I become unable to stop thinking about them, which can interfere with my ability to sleep and even cause my emotions to surge to a level that impedes my ability to both think clearly and to act rationally.

In some sense, writing this piece is not so much for the benefit of others, but rather an attempt to find a way through this dilemma for myself. How can I learn to engage in a way that holds the most promise for potential changing of minds (both mine and that of whoever I’m discussing things with) while also avoiding getting so upset that it endangers my mental health? This endeavor is already bearing fruit because I am now able to see that these twin goals are inherently related: emotional outbursts serve neither.

So how does one deal with the intense emotion that can be stimulated by discussions, correspondence or even arguments which touch on topics that we hold very dear? Some sage advice (about strong emotion more generally) is to allow oneself be aware of it, but to resist the impulsive reaction and instead wait it out. Let the emotion abate and then after one has calmed down, resume thinking about the topic and attempt to reengage. I think it’s possible that (for myself) it may be necessary to repeat this cycle many times,as some topics resonate so deeply with me as to potentially re-stimulate me when I come back to them. But I have to go on the assumption that my emotional responses will eventually diminish after repeated engagement with the same topic, though this may not happen quickly.

If my rhetorical partner is intentionally trying to stimulate my emotions (some folks definitely do this), further interaction may not be productive, depending on just how well I am able to control my emotions (or not). At the very least, using time to my advantage may be indicated, i.e. not rushing to respond, but instead allowing emotions to subside after hearing and/or reading provocative content, assertions, and/or questions.

When one sets out to engage with others, I think it’s really important to frame this engagement properly. Thinking of it as a discussion or conversation is likely to bear more fruit than would “labeling” it an argument. When arguing, there is an assumption of rigidity that is almost (but perhaps not quite?) always counterproductive.

For me, the one, still very open, question is about how hard to push and relatedly, about how much emotion to include in my own statements, responses and questions. There are many issues, whether political, economic, societal, environmental or on other topics, that I see as crucially important to humanity’s and the planet’s future. I can’t help but care very very deeply about such topics. And so intentionally injecting emotion into my speech or writing doesn’t seem wrong. This must be done with care though: Emotion that is designed to provoke may be good for “signalling” to those I’m already in agreement with, but it’ll almost certainly be counterproductive when in a dialogue with an individual who feels, thinks, and/or believes differently. If I can craft my words in such a way that they aren’t intentionally provocative, it may be appropriate to let some frustration “show through”, but I believe extreme care needs to be taken with respect to just exactly how much emotion is included/injected into one’s prose. If I go too far, many people will simply dismiss my position out of hand as “too emotional”.

It seems a delicate balance, because when one really cares about a topic that one considers important (to take a specific example such as the destruction of ecosystems due to human encroachment and other factors resulting from humanity’s growing presence on the planet), expressing at least some outrage does seem proper. If anyone has any advice on how to navigate the fine line between appropriately engaging and potentially turning off a conversational partner, I’d love to hear it. Please leave thoughts in the comments and/or email me at the address given above.




Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Charlie Derr

Charlie Derr


I lean left. I’m very interested in having constructive dialogue with people who hold differing opinions.