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3 Ways to Master the Art of Constructive Disagreement

Respectfully disagreeing with someone requires some tact. Here's how to do it.

Key points

  • Many individuals misinterpret disagreements as indications of poor listening. 
  • People naturally favor those who share their viewpoints.
  • Given a choice between being persuaded or learning, most people want to learn in conversation.
Priscilla Du Preez / Unsplash
Source: Priscilla Du Preez / Unsplash

Many situations arise in everyday life where individuals must express disagreement, whether it’s about making pivotal decisions at work with a business partner or navigating ideological differences with loved ones.

Disagreement is often inevitable in relationships and can even be healthy, as it allows us to learn more about ourselves and others. However, when disagreements go wrong, they can leave us feeling hurt and dissatisfied, resulting in unproductive outcomes and a failure to address underlying concerns.

Here are three ways to disagree with someone in a way that leads to constructive outcomes.

1. Commit to Actively Listening

A new study published in Psychological Science reveals that many individuals misinterpret disagreements as indications of poor listening.

“We find that people evaluate a listener who disagrees with them to be a worse listener than a listener who agrees with them,” explains lead author Bella Ren and co-author Rebecca Schaumberg of the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.

According to the researchers, people naturally favor those who share their viewpoints. They tend to evaluate individuals they like positively across various characteristics, perceiving them as better listeners, more agreeable, approachable, and even more humorous than others. This is called the “halo effect.”

Moreover, a significant factor contributing to this tendency is “naive realism,” which asserts that individuals believe their perception of the world reflects an unbiased and objective view of reality.

So, it’s crucial for speakers to feel heard and understood.

“On average, speakers felt a listener listened to them better when the listener focused on the speaker, demonstrated understanding, and showed respect and interest in what the speaker was saying. So, even if a listener disagrees with the speaker, it is still worthwhile for them to engage in these behaviors,” the researchers explain.

2. Approach Conversations With an Open Mind

Often, people engage in conversations solely to assert their viewpoint or persuade others to agree with them. This approach is counterproductive, as it can create an adversarial dynamic that hinders meaningful communication and results in missed opportunities for learning, collaboration, and the exploration of diverse perspectives.

“We need to realize that conversations involve two (or more) parties and speakers also have the responsibility to facilitate a better, more open-minded conversational experience. Individuals may be better able to understand that disagreement may not stem from poor listening or close-mindedness—others may simply see the world in a different way because of their different backgrounds,” the researchers elaborate.

A 2022 study also found that when participants were given a choice between two disagreeing conversation partners—one wanting to persuade them and the other wanting to learn from them—the majority preferred the partner who wanted to learn. This suggests that people favor discussions where their views are genuinely considered, even if there is disagreement.

The next time you find yourself disagreeing with someone, it will likely help to do so with gentle curiosity, a willingness to learn and to dive deeper into the other person’s perspectives and motivations.

3. Set Clear Intentions and Expectations Before a Conversation

When disagreements arise, most people tend to become defensive, form opinions about the other person, and let various presumptive thoughts flood their minds between the initial disagreement and the subsequent exchanges. By the third sentence you exchange, the other person may seem like an impenetrable fortress, making it feel impossible to break through to them.

Instead, it is essential for everyone involved to establish clear intentions and set expectations before the conversation even begins. For instance, whether they are looking for emotional support or an exchange of ideas to make an important decision, it helps to establish a common goal.

“Before a conversation, speakers and listeners may want to clarify what they are looking for or trying to provide in the conversations so that they can communicate in a way that serves the collective goal better,” the researchers suggest.

Prior to presenting your own viewpoint, you can acknowledge the differences in perspective and express genuine interest in understanding the other person, setting the tone for a constructive discussion, where the goal is to learn from each other, rather than to win an argument.

Just like any other skill in life, effective communication develops over time, through patience and a conscious effort to learn. These strategies can help you navigate disagreements with grace and turn them into positive discussions that allow everyone involved to feel valued and heard, regardless of their differences.


A full interview with researchers Bella Ren and Rebecca Schaumberg can be found here: UPenn Researchers Explain Why Disagreement Is Often Mistaken For 'Bad Listening'

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