Recently I’ve written about learning to disagree without being disagreeable. Sometimes I ask hard questions. Sometimes I’m willing to ask the question that everyone is thinking but won’t say.
Some accuse my questioning of being negative to the process. (What process?) Some say I have a hidden agenda. Some say I’m just attacking.
When did we as a culture disintegrate into a society that doesn’t allow questions? Honest questions deserve honest discussions.
The right questions can actually be freeing. Sometimes my questions cause strong emotional outbursts in others. Sometimes I become a projection screen for someone’s own issues. Fear of change, fear of loss of control, negative experiences and manipulation can cause self-destructive scenarios.
So why are we so unwilling to allow others to ask questions? Why do we quickly take sides in open dialogue with disagreements?
Here are five reasons why we have challenges disagreeing with others without being disagreeable.
1. We are not impartial observers of our own behavior.
Social psychologists call this self-serving bias. When our days go well, it’s because we are skilled and hardworking. When circumstances turn sour, it’s because we are unlucky or someone else made a mistake. Our lens and filters can get in the way.
2. Once we believe something is true, we unconsciously interpret ambiguous situations as being consistent with what we already believe.
This psychological phenomenon is called confirmation bias. Our beliefs, especially when contrary to facts, can become our own barriers to learning and change. Unlearning misperceptions is work.
3. Our brains are not designed for thinking.
Our minds are actually designed to save us from having to think. Consider breathing. Do we think about it? No, our minds just tell our bodies to do it. It’s automatic. Thinking on the other hand takes effort and time. It can be slow and unreliable. We are biased to use our memory to guide our actions rather than think. Yes, people are naturally curious. Yes, people like to solve problems. But we don’t like to work on unsolvable problems. We like the pleasurable rush that comes from successful thought. Conversations with disagreements don’t always lead to pleasurable rushes.
4. Our brains lie to us.
Ever had an emotional highjack? Only to find out twenty-minutes later that the perceived threat was wrong? Sure you have. Our amygdala, the part of the brain which controls our emotions, is designed for fight or flight. If our amygdala senses a threat, our body is flooded with chemicals to either attack or run. The amygdala has the ability to override logical thought. And, when we respond the same way, over and over again, we teach the brain to default to that process all the time. We take some conversations or disagreements personally and our emotions get in the way. The good thing is that with intentionality and vigilance we can teach the brain to default to disagreements without an emotional rise.
5. We don’t take time to reflect.
Chewing the cud, as I call it, is an important cognitive skill that many of us avoid. In our fast-paced lives, we don’t take time to reflect, meditate and ponder things. We’ve bought into the idea that the more we consume the better we are. We keep putting more and more stuff into our working memory and never ruminate on things we’ve read or what others have said. We need to wonder and ponder more.
So how do you handle disagreement without being disagreeable? What keeps you from challenging your own assumptions and preconceived ideas?
Midori Connolly says
Fantastic Jeff! I agree on all five counts…this is actually an excellent reflection of what has rendered American politics ineffectual in many ways.
I was an International Business major and studied French for seven years. I remember learning about the French political system and feeling this sense of wonderment that their parliament covered the “extreme-gauche” and the “extreme-droite” – far left and far right. In France, and many European countries, it was/is OKAY to voice opinions that are not mainstream. And while this should not perpetuate racist or hateful legislation, it is still reflective of the societal composition.
So often in American culture, political or otherwise, we are restricted by a fear of moving from the middle…and where does that leave us? Hemming and hawing, trapped by inertia lest we offend the wrong person. Interestingly enough, despite the representation by the gauche and droite, much of the parliamentary legislation does end up in the middle. But they reach this point after extensive debate and consideration of arguments, rather than starting there.
Jeff, I appreciate that you and I have always been able to disagree without losing our sense of friendship or respect. After our first “discussion” at the dinner table in Montreal, I was thrilled that you in no way took it as a personal attack. The fact that you recognized that I was just vocalizing my point and possibly trying to sway your view on a situation was simply a healthy, mind-stimulating conversation.
Having healthy discourse and differing viewpoints is too frequently interpreted as a personal slight – and we as a society would do far better for each other if we could remove our emotions and learn to disagree more often.
Thanks for a great post,
Midori Connolly, Chief AVGirl
Jamie Notter says
The bottom line is we need to be smarter than our brains. We have to rise above our default settings. This is a component of nearly every leadership challenge we face, including handling difficult conversations. This is why emotional intelligence or any kind of self awareness is a key compnonent of nearly all leadership training programs. Great post Jeff
Jeff Hurt says
Thanks for adding your thoughts. Midori. Great point about being able to disagree without losing respect or friendship. That’s what it should be about.
I like that, “We need to be smarter than our brains!” Excellent point. We don’t have to listen to what our brain is telling us because it might be incorrect. Thanks for reading and adding your insight.