Is it possible to disagree and still be friends?Yes – and you must! says Elle Blakeman
In 2016, a cousin of mine voted for Brexit. This kind, educated, mother-of-two did what at the time felt like nothing less than an act of war to me. ‘I would never speak to her again,’ said a friend. ‘She’s racist and stupid!’ spat another.
Isn’t it interesting that the immediate reaction was to cut her off or write her off as misunderstood – or worse, downright malevolent? There seems to be an inherent belief that anyone who disagrees is not only wrong but stupid (‘They just don’t understand’) or evil (‘racist!’). Why was the reaction not, ‘I wonder why?’ Thinking about it, I decided that I could learn a lot more from speaking to her about it than my other friends who voted the same way I did.
When I asked, she said she was worried about the European Union’s endless bureaucracy. She came from a small town with limited job opportunities and was concerned about unrestricted borders. Her father served in the army and she was raised with a strong belief in sovereignty and democracy, both of which she felt were weakened by being part of the EU. In short, she believed it was the right thing for our country. She had read the same information I had but come at it from a different angle. I still disagreed, but I was interested to hear her take. And, of course, who knows who was right in the end?
We live in a world of conflict, each year seemingly becoming more and more divisive than the last: Leave vs Remain, Trump vs Biden, left vs right, right vs wrong. We assume there is a right answer and that it is ours. No one wants to hear the other side and no one knows how to argue anymore.
‘The key word is “argue”,’ wrote Libby Purves in The Times. ‘It does not include “cancelling”, “no-platforming”, showering personal insults on opponents or imputing to them imaginary, wicked motives. It means sharing evidence, ideas and philosophies, listening, possibly changing your mind a bit.’
The issue is that we tend to think disagreements are inherently bad. This is an innate response, dating back to the days when our survival depended on the approval of our tribe. Anyone in a heated debate might find their pulse is racing and body trembling. This is because we can easily feel threatened by a disagreement, releasing a flood of stress hormones preparing us for fight or flight.
‘We might fantasise about universal harmony, about reason prevailing spontaneously and about everyone being sweetly tolerant,’ says a School of Life article. ‘But vicious disagreement is not going to go away by itself. Rather than despair, we must accept that disagreement will be constant and ubiquitous.’
‘Disagreement is a way of thinking, perhaps the best one we have, critical to the health of any shared enterprise, from marriage to business to democracy,’ says Ian Leslie, author of Conflicted. ‘We can use it to turn vague notions into actionable ideas, blind spots into insights, distrust into empathy. Instead of putting our differences aside, we need to put them to work.’
The problem we have now, more than ever, seems to be identity politics. It’s not just what we think, but who we are.
When Elisa Sobo, professor of anthropology at San Diego State University, interviewed parents who refuse vaccines for their children, she discovered that in many cases it was more than a belief about science and immunity. It was an ‘act of identification’. Like ‘getting a gang tattoo, slipping on a wedding ring, or binge-watching a popular streamed TV show,’ she noted, the refusal is ‘more about who one is and with whom one identifies than who one isn’t or whom one opposes’. And if it’s about identity, rather than belief, it’s understandable that both sides are so entrenched. A disagreement becomes not simply a challenge to your ideas, but a direct criticism of you.
‘If humans were purely rational entities, we would listen politely to an opposing view before offering a considered response,’ says Ian Leslie. ‘In reality, disagreement floods our brain with chemical signals that make it hard to focus on the issue at hand. The signals tell us that this is an attack on me. “I disagree with you” becomes “I don’t like you”. Instead of opening our minds to the other’s point of view, we focus on defending ourselves.’
Nowhere has this been more exacerbated than on social media. There, disagreements are not only par for the course, but actively encouraged and rewarded.
‘Technology has made disagreement more vivid,’ says The School of Life. ‘We are very readily brought into contact with other people’s abrasive attitudes – which, until recently, we could never have encountered.’
Angry tweets and posts get likes, shares and engagement – from both sides – which is precisely what the tech companies want. ‘Nuance, reflection and mutual understanding are not just casualties of the crossfire, but necessary victims,’ says Leslie.
There is a feeling that we need to double down to get anywhere on social media. It’s hard to be nuanced in 140 characters or an Instagram bio – and where’s the fun in being on the fence anyway? So we are encouraged to be firmly for or against something and to seek out both those who agree and, more importantly, those who don’t.
While some worry about the internet creating echo chambers, Leslie believes that the opposite is true. ‘You are almost bound to encounter opinions that upset you on Twitter; much more so than if your only information source is a daily newspaper. Instead of creating bubbles, the internet is bursting them, generating hostility, fear and anger.’
‘Whatever we do, the internet isn’t going to be uninvented,’ wrote Iain Martin in The Times. ‘We’re not going back to the old world, so it is worth thinking about how we can live more productively and at peace in the new one.’
He observes that, once, all communication went through an editing process ‘that took time and, usually, cooled heads… There was always an editor to say no or press pause, with a lawyer watching… The flow of information in return was filtered. A reader could write an angry letter to a magazine but by the time she had looked for a stamp the furious feeling might have passed.’
Compare that to today’s clickbait, below-the-line comments, ‘hit send’ world, which allows no time to pause and think. Where once you might have slept on it and seen how you felt in the morning, now you can instantly throw a verbal grenade into the mix, to cheers from those already on your side.
However, Leslie does not believe we should all stop disagreeing with each other. It’s how we disagree. ‘It would be a profound mistake to conclude from all this that we are arguing too much,’ he says. ‘The hollow outrage we see online is actually evidence of the absence of real, reflective disagreements: fight as a smokescreen for flight.’ There is, he believes, an argument for better arguments.
Perhaps what we really need to change is our attitude to disagreements themselves. If we can consider them a positive – an opportunity to educate us further, push us into a more well-rounded opinion or even change our mind – perhaps we would feel less triggered by someone who thinks differently. As Kintsugi founder Al Reem Al Tenaiji points out in this issue, ‘Nothing grows in the comfort zone.’
This is a concept that many experts support. In his bestselling book Rebel Ideas, Matthew Syed argues that success is no longer about talent, knowledge or skill but about ‘cognitive diversity’.
‘When it comes to complex decisions, strategic decisions, coming up with new ideas, making forecasts and predictions, it’s crucial, first of all, to have a team, because no one perspective is enough, no one brain is enough,’ Syed told CMI magazine. ‘But when you can optimise the cognitive diversity – that is to say, the different insights, perspectives and information – then you get a stronger result. The evidence on this is overwhelming.’ So we need to be looking at – and speaking to – people who disagree with us.
What we don’t need, however, is to be screamed at, cancelled, no-platformed or subjected to whatever other retribution awaits those who dare to hold a different opinion. The squashing of debate does no one any favours.
‘We need to learn how to disagree well, how to navigate through a life in which we will inevitably conflict with many people over expectations, demands, hopes, convictions, priorities and attitudes,’ says the School of Life.
To this end, I leave you with the line that the brilliant comedian Amy Poehler uses whenever she meets someone with a firmly opposite opinion: ‘Good for her! Not for me.’
Tips for successful disagreements
1) Is it worth it?
Before you start, decide if this is a discussion you really want to get into or merely a triggered ego response. There is a big difference between talking politics with a close friend and typing angrily to a stranger on Twitter. Also, in the heat of the moment, things can feel much more important than they actually are. Remember that the world is subjective and it’s okay not to agree on everything with everyone you meet.
2) Separate the idea from
It can be easy to feel attacked when someone disagrees with you, but remember that it is the concept that you have an issue with, not the person saying it.
3) Listen carefully
As every primary school teacher says, ‘Two ears, one mouth.’ It is impossible to have a successful argument without really listening to the other side. While the other person is speaking, focus on what they are saying, not what you plan to say in response. Then pause to let their thoughts sink in before replying. This allows them to feel seen and heard. And that takes the heat out of the disagreement, even if you still differ. It also means they are more likely to do the same for you.
4) Use ‘I’ not ‘You’
‘You’ statements can be very inflammatory and rapidly escalate an argument. ‘You always say that’ or ‘You don’t understand…’ feel judgemental and unfair. Try phrasing things from your own perspective: ‘I think that it’s a good idea…’, ‘I believe we should…’ ‘I don’t agree with that because…’
5) Keep things civil
My mother always used to say that as soon as you raise your voice, you’ve lost the argument. The same goes for sarcasm, snide put-downs or unkind personal remarks. Putting down someone else’s ideas makes them more likely to dig in their heels and miss your points completely. Try to stay calm and curious, even when pushed.
6) Let go of being right
Probably the most important thing to remember is that no one is right all the time. Instead of arguing to ‘win’, think of it as a way to learn more and to stretch your thought process.