Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Why Disagreement Is a Very Bad Approach to Any Conversation

In our society, we are taught to have an opinion and speak our minds. What we are not taught to do is listen. We are so focused on our opinion that we often fail to hear what is being communicated to us.

Sure. We are taught to pay attention to what someone says to us, whether in a public forum or in our most intimate relationships. However, do we really consider what we are listening for?

If you notice, when we
like someone, it occurs mostly because we find ourselves agreeing with much of what they say. On the other hand, we find ourselves disagreeing with those we claim to dislike.

If we peel back the layers of this paradigm, we find we rarely listen to anyone. We are listening for something. We listen for the things we like and agree with. Conversely, we listen for the things we don’t like and disagree with. We even express agreement and/or disagreement for the things we agree with, if the person does not express those things in a manner that is familiar to us. And if we don’t fully understand what they say, we ignore it or say it doesn’t make sense. Or change that which we do not understand into something that makes sense to us. Therefore, we are almost never actually listening to what the speaker is saying to us. We are listening for our own interests. In other words, we are listening for the speaker to validate our very existence or identity. If someone says something that appears to invalidate our identity, we attack or ignore it. In that paradigm, there is almost never an occasion for discourse. We are continuously engaged in a debate. Debates are about being right and making the other wrong.

Discourse, on the other hand, allows the conversation to create something new. Discourse is analogous to the making of water. Water is H2O. It is a contribution between hydrogen and oxygen. By themselves, they are valuable. Together they make something they could have never made on their own. And they are not equal when it comes to making water. Yet, they cooperate and contribute to one another.

Furthermore, it would seem that the only way someone could disagree is because they know everything.  If you know everything, you are in a position to determine if something is true of false. If you don’t know everything and believe it is your place to disagree with another, you may be displaying arrogance, because each person has limited knowledge. How can you believe that what you know is sufficient enough to understand the many things you don’t know or the things you don’t know you don’t know?

For example, in the 1920s, Robert Goddard said ‘one day man will fly to the moon.’ The NY Times not only disagreed, they wrote a lengthy article to insult Goddard’s intelligence. In 1969, the NY Times wrote another article of apology to him, even though he was dead.

Before you disagree with this article, I suggest you take the following steps. In your next conversation, explore a new paradigm. Engage in discourse instead of a debate. If you really want to demonstrate you are listening, repeat what the person said to you. They will either say ‘yes, I said that’, ‘no, that is not what I said’ or ‘yes, that is what I said, but that is not what I meant.’ That simple step can make the other person feel as though you value everything word they are saying. It also forces you to really pay attention. In addition, ask questions when you don’t understand. More importantly, have an open mind. That way you have the possibility to make water. Through an engaging discourse, you and the speaker can create something that one of you could have never made on your own.  

What do you think? I’m open to ideas. Or if you want to write me about a specific topic, let me know.


  1. Tom - simple idea and very relevant to today. At our Foundation programmes we are saying too often "stop listening to respond, and start listening to think" - it's simple but maybe hard to do. However, with focused practice you'll succeed and the results of that small change can be transformational to someone and their business. We've seen that alone transforms their culture.

    1. Thanks, Neville. On the surface it does seem simple. At the same time, there are some many beliefs that we hold and never question that we are not always aware of what is really driving our behavior. Therefore, it is almost never as simple as it seems. There are a number of tools that give people the ability to transform the way they listen to others.

  2. Tom, thank you for your well-considered post.

  3. Perhaps expand this thinking into full-fledged "Red Teaming"
    ... A supplemental article on the subject for your consideration...


    1. Thanks for the article, Joe. It definitely expands the idea of bringing 2 sides together to create something neither side could have created on their own. Is this a project you have been doing with clients?