On Disagreements

How to disagree with others but maintain a good relationship with them, and minimize disagreements in the future. 

Last night my family and I hosted a party for our children’s friends, about 30 kids from elementary school through high school. Our daughter and two of her high school friends who are all home from college were here as all. After the party, our family and Anna’s friends, Megan and Jamie, watched the 1947 movie Miracle on 34th Street, a perennial Christmas favorite. Megan had seen the movie at our house the year before and loved it, and like most young millennials in our experience, Jamie rarely watched old movies and hadn’t seen it.  We all hoped that Jamie would enjoy the film, just as we had when Megan watched it the year before, but between texting and stepping away, I feared that she would miss the subtleties that make many old movies so good. As the courtroom scene reached its climax, Jamie became more and more engaged. At the end, with a smile a mile wide, she said that it was a terrific movie.

We all want others to enjoy the things that we enjoy, because doing such things together brings us together as people. Friends who like Chinese food, baseball games, and reading Shakespeare will enjoy doing these things together, making them more fun for all and building their relationships. People who have little or nothing in common will not likely be friends, or stay friends for long.

We also want others to enjoy the things that we enjoy because agreement validates our position. When a woman buys a new dress she often asks her friends and family how it looks on her. If they like it too, she is likely to keep the dress and wear it proudly. If they don’t, she is likely to return it and feel foolish for having made a poor decision. In that situation, however, the woman who bought the dress actually has three logical responses.

  1. Assume that those who did not like the dress are correct and that she should not have valued it herself.
  2. Assume that she is correct and that those who didn’t like the dress are wrong, reaffirming her own valuation and devaluing theirs.
  3. Assume that her position and theirs may differ, but neither is very important and neither is right or wrong. This allows her to maintain faith in her own decision making and in that of others.

Most would agree that in this case, option 3 is the best; it allows people to maintain respect for themselves and others and minimizes conflict. Nevertheless I find few people who are emotionally secure enough to choose it. Whether talking to people in medicine or in ministry, I have seen that disagreement usually leads to insecurity and conflict, not acceptance and mutual respect.

We have these same three options about any topic; large or small, important or unimportant. Prior to the recent election there was a voter registration drive at my daughter’s college. One of the workers talking to my daughter brought up a woman’s right to choose abortion. The two disagreed, and in so doing they faced the same three choices:

  1. Each could have had assumed that the other might be correct, thereby devaluing their own opinion.
  2. Each could have assumed that the other was wrong, thereby devaluing the other’s opinion.
  3. Each could have affirmed their opinion, but felt that the issue was not important and that neither opinion was objectively, morally right or wrong.

Unlike the dress example, both women left the engagement feeling that the other was wrong. They had no relationship before, and needless to say they have no relationship today. The two scenarios differ in many ways. In the first case a relationship exists, the issue is considered trivial, and there is no objective, moral right and wrong. In the second case no relationship exists, the issue is considered important, and there is a clear moral right and wrong.

Note that the side that prefers the status quo will accept different options than the side that favors change. Since abortion is legal and widespread in the US, pro-choice advocates are happy for the general population to assume that pro-life people are morally wrong or that the issue is unimportant. In the same environment, pro-life advocates need the general population to feel that pro-choicers are wrong and that the issue is important. If abortion were illegal, the needs would be opposite.

What should we learn from this? First, sometimes neither person is right or wrong, and some issues are not important. In the presence of disagreement, many people quickly assume that their opinions are wrong and change them like the wind. These people are often insecure and rely on others for their opinions. Other people rigidly assume that their opinions are right. They hold their opinions on most issues, large and small, but in the process routinely devalue others. These people often have a few clingy followers, but are often alone. Option three, that all opinions are equally valid, and therefore that all opinion-holders are equally valid, is often the best option.

Second, sometimes we really are wrong and sometimes others really are wrong. At those times, the one who is wrong needs to change.  Some issues are truly important and are worth fighting for, even if others disagree, however violently, and even if relationships are broken. Aaron Tippen sang “You’ve got to stand for something or you’ll fall for anything.”  Sometimes option three is not the best option.

We had a wonderful time at our Christmas party and the movie afterwards. Our home is a place where our children’s friends feel at home. We all agreed on the movie, but even if we had not, our relationships would have remained strong. Movies aren’t really important and we can disagree without being disagreeable. Other things are not.

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