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Six Steps to Disagreeing Better

Here's a guide to disagreeing with respect and understanding.

Key points

  • Disagreements are natural; managing them well improves people's relationships and well-being.
  • Recognizing the roots of conflict helps people to handle disagreements more effectively.
  • Empathy, respect, and openness to diverse views are essential for mastering the art of disagreeing.
  • Not all disagreements can be resolved; learning to agree to disagree maintains respect and relationships.
Source: Mikhail Nilov / Pexels
Source: Mikhail Nilov / Pexels

Conflict and disagreements surround us every day. We can’t turn on the television or engage in social media without seeing disputes of some sort; these often become toxic and unhealthy, with people attacking each other for their opinions.

For most of us, these disputes can be small and not amount to much. Yet, other times, they can result in tension, conflict, and even disconnection.

Whether with friends, family, coworkers, or even strangers online, the way we manage these disputes is important to not only our relationships but also our well-being. The ability to disagree better isn’t just a skill but a mindset that can improve communication and relationships, creating a more empathetic society.

Why Disagreements Happen

So, why do we disagree in the first place? The fact is that disagreements are a fundamental part of human interaction. Conflicts arise naturally from differing viewpoints, values, or knowledge bases. However, other factors exacerbate or intensify these arguments.

Cognitive Processes

Our individual experiences shape our understanding and interpretation of information, forming unique cognitive schemas—mental structures that assist in organizing and interpreting incoming data. As we encounter different situations, we process them using these schemas, which can result in varied conclusions and, therefore, disagreements. Douglas (2015) notes that relational schemas, whether healthy or maladaptive, are significant in understanding closeness and conflict negotiation styles.

Cognitive Bias

Confirmation bias causes us to unconsciously favor information that aligns with our beliefs and dismiss evidence that contradicts them (Peters, 2022). This mechanism affects how we gather, interpret, and recall information, leading to varied viewpoints even with the same facts.

Similarly, motivated reasoning involves actively seeking to justify our beliefs while rejecting contradictory evidence. Both of these, as well as other biases, contribute to the development and maintenance of disagreements.

Emotional Influences

We develop strong emotional attachments to our beliefs, which are closely linked to our sense of identity and values. This is particularly evident in the current U.S. political climate, where debates are often emotionally charged, sometimes discounting factual information.

When our beliefs are challenged, it can trigger emotional responses. These reactions may cloud our judgment and rational thinking, resulting in disagreements and a diminished capacity to listen to others genuinely.

How Do We Disagree Better?

Having an understanding of why disagreement happens is only half the battle. We must also have thoughtful strategies to transform disagreements into opportunities for connection and understanding. Here are my six steps to disagreeing productively:

1. Listen Actively.

Active listening requires fully engaging to hear, acknowledge, and retain what the other person communicates. During disagreements, it’s easy to fall into the trap of formulating a rebuttal while the other person is still speaking rather than genuinely listening to their words and intentions. For instance, in a workplace disagreement about the direction of a project, instead of immediately dismissing your coworker’s ideas, ask clarifying questions to understand their perspective thoroughly.

2. Seek Common Ground.

In the middle of many disagreements, there’s usually some common ground. Identifying, highlighting, and expanding on shared values or common goals can show mutual respect and open the door for constructive dialogue. For example, if you and a partner are arguing about financial priorities, start by acknowledging a shared goal, such as securing a comfortable future.

3. Embrace a Growth Mindset.

At the heart of constructive dispute is the belief that we can grow from our encounters. Dr. Carol Dweck (2007) coined the term “growth mindset,” which encourages us to view disagreements not as threats but as opportunities to learn and understand different perspectives. Thus, being curious rather than defensive opens us to new ideas and deepens our connections with others.

For instance, when you and a friend have a heated discussion about politics, pause and then respond, “This is a complex issue. We might not agree, but I’d be interested in understanding your viewpoint better.” This invites dialogue and shows openness to growth, even if you don’t agree.

4. Use “I” Statements.

To prevent heated discussions from becoming personal, focus on facts and express your feelings using “I” statements. This avoids assigning blame and reduces defensiveness. Communicate clearly and calmly, taking responsibility for your own emotions and avoiding generalizations or accusations.

For example, if you’re a parent at a school board meeting disagreeing with a new policy, instead of accusing, “You don’t care about our school and students,” you could say, “As a parent, I feel concerned about the impact of this policy on the safety of our students and staff.”

5. Rethink Cognitive Distortion.

We all have cognitive biases, including confirmation bias and motivated reasoning, among others. Be aware of your thoughts and look at ways to rethink the situation.

Maybe at a work meeting, a colleague questions your proposal publicly. You might initially think, “They’re trying to make me look incompetent,” which could lead to frustration or anger. However, by acknowledging your bias, you can pause and respond constructively by saying, “I appreciate the feedback. Could you clarify your concerns so I can address them better?” This allows you to stay professional and open to feedback, focusing on the issue rather than perceiving it as a personal attack.

6. Agree to Disagree.

Despite our best efforts, not all disagreements can be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. Learning to agree to disagree respectfully allows both parties to maintain their views without feeling pressured to concede or dominate. For example, if a family member holds vastly different political views, acknowledging the impasse and shifting the conversation to less controversial topics can maintain the relationship while respecting the diversity of thought.


As we face growing divisions in opinions and viewpoints, mastering the art of disagreeing is more than a personal skill—it’s a societal necessity. This isn’t about avoiding conflict, as contrasting ideas often result in significant growth. Instead, it’s about engaging in discussions with empathy, respect, and an openness to diverse thoughts.

Remember, the goal isn’t always to win a disagreement but to broaden our understanding and strengthen relationships, even with those who hold different views.


Douglas, A. (2015). Cognitive schemas, adversity, and interpersonal functioning: An exploratory study within undergraduate women. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment, & Trauma, 24, 466-483.

Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

Peters, U. (2022). What Is the Function of Confirmation Bias?. Erkenn, 87, 1351–1376.

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