Beyond disagreement

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about disagreement and how it arises. It’s a subject closely connected to my dialogue work – too many conversations begin with good intentions yet end badly as individual agendas collide.

It’s evident that one root of disagreement is difference of opinion. When handled skilfully, an exchange of contrasting positions is debate, a form of conversation that can both refine reasoning and test the robustness of it. However, pitting one outlook against another can easily degenerate into a contest in which adherents of one view seek to overcome the alternative(s). 

This reveals a less-noticed root of disagreement: an attempt to convince or persuade. Disagreement arises from an assumption that agreement is desirable and/or necessary. I believe this assumption to be both wide-spread and unexamined, giving rise to a thin line between passionate-yet-respectful debate and hostility.  

Further, in current times much is expressed through written ‘short form’ means such as twitter and texting, and through even more concise vehicles like hashtags. In these condensed exchanges meaning is often lost to a trending headline. As momentum gathers and polarises around a summary phrase and it’s rebuttable, it becomes increasingly hard to honour differences. Nuance, ambiguity and context are disregarded in the course of affirming what is believed to be certain, absolute and true.

This is disturbing enough. Yet more troubling is an apparent increase in intolerance of difference itself, evidenced by the emergence of trolling, cancel culture and no-platforming. Whilst I understand that it’s easier to attack or avoid something we find challenging, distasteful or just plain wrong, I’m not sure it serves us, individually or collectively. Over time, skills for handling diverse ideas are falling into disuse. Without them, our world shrinks, diminishing understanding, creativity and innovation (to name but a few).    

Recently, I’ve noticed many articles exploring how, societally, we’re becoming less able to accept dissent. A piece by Kevin Pringle caught my attention. I read his stuff because I rarely agree with him and so his perspectives make me think. In this particular column, written ahead of the May elections, Pringle noted the number of politicians appealing for unity. Regarding this as both unattainable and undesirable, he championed healthy diversity of thought, urging politicians to work through divisions rather than supposing them to be damaging. I support his analysis.

He then suggests that part of the problem is ‘we don’t have a good vocabulary to describe political disagreement.’

I see this differently. Such vocabulary exists in the field of dialogue, a body of theory and practice for generative conversations. The frameworks of dialogue allow us to describe the structure of disagreement (whether political or not) and to explore what we might need to change. However, they aren’t widely known.   

Towards the end of his article, Pringle writes:   

‘Instead of delegitimising difference, we could all do with a crash course in how to disagree better.’

He then concludes that we need to engage in ‘vigorous debate about what divides us.’ Again, I demur. I believe this misunderstands the structure and purpose of debate, which tends to emphasise difference through asserting point and counterpoint, narrowing the potential for fresh thinking. And so, for instance, the complex process of disentangling an element of a union is reduced to the polarity of voting remain or leave (or yes or no).

Instead, we might ask: how can we approach difference differently? How might we consider what connects us, rather than what divides us?

Dialogue invites people with disparate beliefs, stances and interests to engage in another way. In dialogue, we aim to more fully understand the framing of an issue by sharing diverse perspectives and considering the interdependencies, uncertainties, ambiguities and varying values, priorities and concerns that are inherent in complexity. In this process, we include difference as a natural facet of being human and explore the consequences of it. We’re not seeking agreement and so disagreement has less traction. In such an environment new insights can arise.

There is vast potential in building capacity for this way of talking together. However, a ‘crash course’ is not an option: inhabiting dialogue takes time, commitment and energy. What might motivate more of us to embark on this long, slow path?


    • Reflecting on your experience of conversations, what is the ‘look and feel’ of debate? What is the ‘look and feel’ of dialogue? What distinguishes them?

    • When significant differences arise, what do you notice in yourself and in others?  How might you explore what connects those present, rather than what divides them?

Written in May 2021