For Stronger Relationships: Learn To Disagree Better

Our current environment is sometimes touted as the age of tolerance. Consider how many company rosters now include positions like “VP of Diversity and Inclusion.”

But the reality signals something else.

Each Thanksgiving, the Internet is abuzz with advice on how to avoid letting dinner table discussions devolve into a Turkey Day brawl. Thousands (millions?) of people report abandoning social media because they can’t stomach the vitriol. Universities are “uninviting” speakers whose views might offend the fainthearted.

Our politics, which once had at least a modicum of respect and consensus, has become a ritualized cycle of outrage and denunciation. Running for office seems to more of a performance art than an exchange of ideas.

But there’s hope. Occasionally we can find a voice of reason.

I found one such voice in Arthur C. Brooks. He gave a 12-minute graduation speech at Brigham Young University. It was the most articulate and reasonable plea I’ve heard for a return to comity in all our relationships.

Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt.

Brooks doesn’t suggest that people stop disagreeing with each other. He simply offers excellent advice on how to disagree better.

It’s advice that’s relevant at work, at home, and in the public square

Rodger Dean Duncan: Research shows that insults actually intensify people’s opposition to contrary viewpoints. So why are insults so common in our public discourse?

Arthur C. Brooks: It’s certainly strange to see something so obviously counterproductive play a leading role in American public life, but our habit of insulting others is driven by two fairly straightforward factors.

The first is that this kind of behavior is modeled by public figures in many different arenas, which together comprise what I refer to as the “outrage industrial complex.” People have a tendency to imitate the behaviors of their leaders, which we are doing in this case to clearly destructive ends.

Less frequently acknowledged is our own role in driving up demand for this kind of leadership. Acrimonious and pugilistic figures dominate the airwaves because we give them our time and attention—a genuinely bad habit we should break by putting the outrage industrial complex on mute.

Duncan: Why has our society become so incompetent at listening?

Arthur C. Brooks

Brooks: We’re terrible at listening because of the culture of contempt that has developed in recent years. Rather than seeing our opponents as merely incorrect in their views (but perhaps worth trying to persuade), we now mostly view them as worthless, undeserving of any consideration.

With this kind of attitude, why would you listen to someone on the “other side”? And so the contempt we have for others has caused us to fall out of practice when it comes to listening.

Given the state of our culture, recovering an ability to listen will require that we reject the notion that our fellow citizens have no value as people, even if their ideas might merit scorn.

Duncan: You quote an old African proverb that says “When elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers.” How does the pandemic of contempt in political matters affect the workplace?

Brooks: When the loudest voices foment a culture of contempt, it bleeds into all areas of life. Because it’s now so common to hear that we are right while they are stupid and evil, it can feel as though even our places of work must be turned into battlegrounds. So rather than focus on building a good product or serving the customers in our communities, our professional interactions have become consumed by national politics.

But placing Washington at the center of everything leads to serious breakdowns in trust, cooperation, and creativity—a clear consequence of the broader culture of contempt.

Duncan: What can business leaders do to help their people deal productively with their disagreements?

Brooks: The first thing business leaders can do is promote disagreement!

In our culture today, we far too readily assume that conflict and disagreement are harmful for us, emotionally and even physically. They’re not, of course—a competition of ideas improves outcomes, builds resiliency, and sharpens our thinking. But disagreement must be facilitated in the right way, with a spirit of warm-heartedness and an eye toward mutually shared ends. Leaders should take it upon themselves to encourage this kind of disagreement.

Duncan: One of my favorite lines from Harper Lee’s iconic To Kill a Mockingbird is when Atticus Finch delivers a dose of paternal wisdom to his young daughter: “If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” Atticus wasn’t suggesting sympathy, which connotes agreement. He was talking about empathy, which is about understanding. I sometimes ask myself “Where’s Atticus Finch when we need him?”

But of course we can reach back even further for help. What can we learn from Aristotle about the relationships between friendship and disagreement?

Brooks: Aristotle understood that disagreement wasn’t something to avoid in our relationships. Indeed, the highest form of friendship for Aristotle was one based on shared virtue, not utility or pleasure. So, if healthy disagreement can bring our understanding of virtue into greater focus, it plays a critical role in cultivating friendship in its highest form.

Duncan: How can disagreement actually strengthen a friendship?

Brooks: Disagreement for its own sake is not inherently valuable; it must be directed toward some greater end. If we build consensus with others about shared moral ends—say, increasing opportunity for those at the margins of society—our friendships are strengthened through our disagreements about how to accomplish our shared objectives.

By testing our ideas with our friends and asking for their points of view, we are able to come to a better understanding of the best ways to achieve common moral ends, and come closer together in virtue, the chief end of friendship.

Duncan: You advise people to use their values as a gift, not as a weapon. In the workplace, what would that look like in terms of observable behaviors?

Brooks: If you have a significant point of disagreement with a colleague (e.g. he regularly goes out of his way to criticize coworkers), there are usually two ways you can go about addressing the issue.

The first is to tell your colleague he is a moral reprobate or an idiot for treating others as he does. The second is to be a model of the kindness you’d want him to express, and share how offering encouragement or more constructive feedback has helped you achieve better outcomes in the workplace.

The latter example uses your value of kindness as a gift—something special and worth emulating—while the former weaponizes the value of kindness, making it less attractive to others.

Duncan: You strongly believe that love is a verb—that love, the feeling, is a fruit of love, the verb. How can that philosophy be put to good use in the workplace—or in any other relationships?

Brooks: We allow far too many of our actions to be governed by our feelings when, in fact, most research shows that this relationship works in the opposite direction.

So do you want better friendships with your colleagues (even the ones who don’t vote like you)? A happier workplace? More love in your life?

The answer isn’t to allow your contempt for other people to dictate the way you treat them. Instead, take proactive steps to be a kinder, more loving person, even when you don’t feel like it. A great many studies show that this makes us not only more successful at the office, but happier as people.

It’s okay to disagree with your colleagues. And when you learn to disagree without being disagreeable, all of you will learn more.

Duncan: Most of us cling to our personal opinions like Velcro. In fact, we prefer reinforcement from like-minded friends and commentators.

The problem with that kind of echo chamber is that we miss the opportunity to learn. I’m not suggesting that we abandon our values or opinions. What I’m saying is that opposing views can be surprisingly informative. And they can enrich our own understanding of issues that are important to us.

“Escape the bubble” is something you recommend. Please explain, and tell us about the benefits of that.

Brooks: Many of us live in intellectual silos, “friending” and following only the people and sources we already agree with. While it’s comforting to hear that you’re right all of the time, it skews our perspectives in a dangerous way, first by keeping our own ideas safe from any challenge and second by allowing perceptions of our political opponents to be shaped by caricatures of the people with whom we disagree, not the people themselves. In this way, we live in a dangerous unreality, which is why escaping the bubble is so important.

What does escaping the bubble look like? If you read the New York Times, pick up the Wall Street Journal’s op-ed page every now and then. If you listen only to conservative talk radio, try NPR’s Morning Edition once a week. Or better yet, befriend someone who doesn’t vote like you. When we escape the bubble, it humanizes those we would otherwise view and treat with contempt.

Duncan: In terms of loving our enemies, what can we learn from Nelson Mandela?

Brooks: The key lesson to learn from Mandela, and world-historical leaders like him, is that the best long-term strategy for victory is love.

To be clear, love in this context is not a mushy and temporal sentiment, but something tough and bracing. To truly love others is to embody a radical commitment to the good of all people, even those who treat you with contempt and abuse. Mandela was beaten, imprisoned, and assigned to forced labor for years, but he possessed the fortitude to love and even befriend his captors. Love does not mean apathy or inaction.

Mandela stood unwaveringly against the evils of apartheid. But as a leader, he understood that to respond in kind to those who hated him would only continue a vicious cycle of contempt. Our leaders would benefit greatly from emulating his example rather than continuing to wage a highly destructive ideological holy war.

Duncan: What do you regard as the most helpful three or four “rules” for maintaining healthful relationships with people of opposing viewpoints?

Brooks: My first rule comes from the renowned psychologist and marriage counselor John Gottman, who established what he calls the “5 to 1 rule”: for every negative or critical thing you say about your partner (or friend in this case), offer five positive or encouraging remarks. Adhering to this rule makes a world of difference when we talk to those with whom we disagree.

The second rule is not to insult or assign ulterior motives to people who disagree with us. We all have unique stories that have brought us to our current beliefs, and by assuming the worst of others, or directly insulting them, you will almost always preclude the possibility of persuading them to see an issue as you do. No one has ever been insulted into agreement.

The third rule is to start with your why rather than your what. Most people who disagree talk about specific policy beliefs (“Increase the minimum wage!”) rather than the principles that motivate those policy beliefs (“We should enact policies that make work pay, especially for the poorest Americans.”). But by starting with your why, you can establish common cause with those who might have a different what, but are willing to hear you out because they know you want to achieve the same things. It’s the common why that allows us to disagree better with others rather than disagree less.

Duncan: You equate thoughtful listening with missionary work. How can that analogy help someone exchange contempt for respect and even appreciation and love?

Brooks: When it comes to serious political disagreements, I’ll often ask people what their goal is with respect to those on the other side of an issue. Do you want to exile them? Jail them? Silence them? Almost everyone says, “No, of course not!” Most people say they just want their ideological opponents to think and behave differently—the goal of many missionaries.

So how do you win people over? Not by pouring scorn on those who think differently, but by expressing your own values with love and kindness. This is what missionaries do, and it will make you a magnetic force for your side of an argument. So in addition to being the morally right thing to do, listening and responding in a spirit of love ends up being the most pragmatic way to bring people to your side.

This column was previously published by Forbes where Dr. Duncan is a regular contributor.

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Rodger Dean Duncan

Rodger Dean Duncan is bestselling author of CHANGE-friendly LEADERSHIP and a regular contributor to Forbes and Fast Company magazines. He is widely known for his expertise in the strategic management of change, for organizations and for individuals. In 1972 he founded Duncan Worldwide to train and develop leaders. His clients have included some of the top companies in the world, as well as cabinet officers in two White House administrations.
Rodger Dean Duncan