Respectful disagreements

by Rocky Mountain Stepmom

Recently I’ve come across two articles about how to communicate with / persuade people who disagree with you.

The first is from the Harvard Business Review, written by Deepak Malhotra, who has a book about negotiating in impossible circumstances. He suggests finding ways to let your opponent save face, and to find ways to include them in your tent.

How to Build an Exit Ramp for Trump Supporters

The second is by Daniel Dennett, who is a big shot in the philosophy world. This one is more about how to argue with people so that you can actually make some progress down a given intellectual path. Believe me, most philosophers don’t follow this approach, but they probably should.

How to Criticize with Kindness: Philosopher Daniel Dennett on the Four Steps to Arguing Intelligently

I freely admit that I’m not very good at following any of these rules unless someone is paying me to do so. Totebaggers, what do you think of the advice from Malhotra and Dennett?


75 thoughts on “Respectful disagreements

  1. So I’m not a Trump supporter but I found the first article super condescending. I think the election will be closer than polls indicate because I think there are a lot of undercover Trump voters that just won’t admit they’re voting for him.

  2. I think the points at the end of the first article are relevant, but I think Malhotra will have turned off too many readers before they get that far. While I do agree that Trump has campaigned on hate, I don’t think his supporters see it that way. I agree with Atlanta about undercover voters, but I think that they exist on both sides. As decisive as this election has become, many people are choosing to protect their relationships with people who have opposing view points. I suspect many are either not commenting or reporting themselves as undecided (commonly stating they are forced to choose between two bad candidates) and after the election will jump on the need to support the office regardless of who was elected.

    My approach in the workplace to change opinion, which some would say shows weakness, has often been to ask the other side for more information – how will this work? I see X as an obstacle, is it? If so, can you help me understand to how this overcome it? While it can make me look like I just am not bright enough to catch on and they must “educate” me, it often gets them to see the flaw themselves and move away from it on their own, addressing points 4-6 in the first article.

  3. I also thought the tone of the first article was condescending. It failed to address the difference between voting for a candidate and voting for a belief system. My relatives pretty much all despise Trump but it sounded like they would all vote for him because they see 4 years of Trump as less bad than allowing Clinton to choose Supreme Court nominees. They knew Trump had proposed 20 “acceptable” Supreme Court nominees and they would accept any of those people as Supreme Court nominees over whomever Clinton would choose.

    If Garland ascends to the Supreme Court, there will be 5 people of Roman Catholic belief/heritage and 4 people of Jewish belief/heritage on the Supreme Court, at least from an article I read. To the extent that our heritage shapes our beliefs and that diversity is important (and y’all know I’m not convinced that diversity is necessarily a value), the beliefs of Protestant/evangelical Christians are underrepresented.

    In areas with a significant population of wealthy people and a relatively small group of people in multigenerational poverty (vs., say, immigrants or grad students who just have no money), I think the progressive agenda can work. But where Trump supporters/conservatives live, the ratio of those groups is such that we/they don’t see how the progressive agenda (strong social safety net; minimal enforcement of immigration law) can work.

  4. I thought the first part of the article was in complete contradiction to the second part. I suppose the author had no intention of talking to people who might support Trump (or oppose Hilary, which are not actually the same thing), only providing some guidance to those of his kind who might have to interact with those people who support Trump.

  5. Austin, your approach is great. It totally goes against my first instincts, which are to point out flaws, but your method could be used both in work and personal settings. Especially with eldercare issues

  6. Pingback: Respectful disagreements — The Totebag | The Real Connie's Closet

  7. Yeah, Austin, I would like to follow your example. Blurting out “But that’s totally stupid!” doesn’t always work well for me in groups.

  8. Agree with the condescending tone of the article, which provides a nice irony given that the point of the article was supposedly how to move past what appears to be fundamental disagreements. I guess the guy missed Rule #1: don’t approach the discussion from the assumption that you are the only conceivable “right” side and the other is either ill-intentioned or just too dumb for words. (Not that I haven’t been guilty of that, but I’m not holding myself out as an expert in negotiation and compromise). I think the guy screwed up in making it all about Trump, rather than focusing on the larger point of the huge swaths of the populace on both sides who are fed up with business as usual — how do you re-build trust in a system when so many feel marginalized?

    “I suspect many are either not commenting or reporting themselves as undecided (commonly stating they are forced to choose between two bad candidates) and after the election will jump on the need to support the office regardless of who was elected.” I agree with the first part and couldn’t disagree more with the second. I think whoever wins, many will jump on the “see, I told you they’re bad” bandwagon, because of what whole lack of trust. I do think Hillary will win, but I also think many of her supporters are holding their noses and pulling the lever.

    It is funny, because I do actually do much of what these articles discuss in my job. Sometimes the stuff I deal with makes me *so* mad. But my job isn’t to get mad, or make the perfect riposte — it’s to get my clients to a workable solution. And for that to happen, face-saving is critical, on both sides. As is empathy — you cannot possibly negotiate successfully unless you understand both your client’s and your opponents’ drivers. Which are frequently highly personal, e.g., specific employment metrics that determine promotion/compensation; good or bad prior experience with the other side; etc.

    And of course none of this came naturally to me; I am much more inclined to argue that the law says X, and you’re wrong — or just cut to the bottom line, we’ll do X and that’s it, and then no one has to pay these stupid legal fees. But I’ve learned that you really do need to hold something back until the very end, so it looks like you’re the last guy giving something to make the deal go through (even though it’s usually something you planned on giving all along). Ironically, the most effective way to win is to swallow your ego and figure out how to make the other side feel like *they’ve* won.

  9. LfB, I got to pretend play the role of “site environmental engineer” and felt confident enough to do so in part because the EPA report for the industry leader is public information. One of my achievements was getting rid of a useless piece of equipment that made my techs get called in to deal with frequent nuisance alarms.

    My primary argument was that removing it would contribute to our corporate environmental goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. (The fact that my techs would stop wasting a lot of time was merely a side benefit.) Corporate and the state DEQ bought the argument, which is one the official team hadn’t come up with.

    I jokingly told the techs they should send me flowers.

  10. I’ve seen an article with the same title as the first one here. Can’t say exactly where it was, but I have the feeling it was in a forum that presents itself as young and hip and ubercool, and that the introduction to this piece was a little bit tongue-in-cheek/teasing. Even in that format, it didn’t really appeal to me, but it did seem less jarring.

  11. I’ve used Austin’s “walk me through how this works” technique at times, and it has another benefit — sometimes I actually am missing something and there is a solid answer to my critique!

  12. I’ve noticed that it is very rarely a good idea to leave one side of a dispute or any sort of arrangement feeling taken advantage of. Three times, DH and I have been able to enter into a business arrangement with someone who felt that they had been taken advantage of by the person they were working with at the time. One of the things that we constantly tell our kids and try to watch out for in our dealings is that we want the other side to feel like they are getting a fair or good deal.

  13. I’ve used Austin’s technique as well. Like HM, sometimes I find the flaw in my reasoning. It even works with little kids…what do we have to do to make this work? It’s a lot easier than saying no, and tends to get buy in on the final solution.

  14. LfB -Being able to say until the last minute you are undecided and then saying well, who I voted for doesn’t matter, we need to all support the winner completely avoids having to confront the people who you KNOW disagreeing with and that that disagreement will harm your realtionship with them. I am hearing from friends that this election is more divisive in their families than any they can recall and efforts are being made to minimize it.

    Agree that the “walk me through it” approach can show me what I am missing as well.

  15. Austin – A friend of mine from work recently shared a meme on Facebook that said “I just saved a ton of money on Christmas presents by discussing politics on Facebook.”

  16. I think whoever wins, many will jump on the “see, I told you they’re bad” bandwagon, because of what whole lack of trust.

    And this is a huge problem, IMO. Neither side is willing to give the other the benefit of the doubt. Each side spins everything that their side does as wonderful, and everything the other side does as terrible. There’s no nuance.

  17. From the first link:

    “That is why, for the first time in U.S. history, Americans need one candidate—in this case, Donald Trump—to lose decisively.”

    I disagree. I think it’s important that if Hillary wins, it not be decisive, sending a clear message to her and to Congress that she doesn’t have a mandate, that she only won because she was seen as the lesser of two evils.

    I’ve mentioned before that Hillary has a history of doing things that blow up in her face, and I’d rather not see that happen again if/when she is POTUS.

  18. From the first link again:

    “Once disillusioned, as a number of Trump supporters are becoming, they are much more likely to vote for a third party”

    Like that’s a bad thing?

  19. “the beliefs of Protestant/evangelical Christians are underrepresented”

    Not to mention agnostics, atheists, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Hindus, …..

  20. “people who might support Trump (or oppose Hilary, which are not actually the same thing)”

    My guess is that a lot of people support Trump because they oppose Hillary.

  21. I prefer to think that I am opposing Hillary, not supporting Trump.

    Although I am taking advantage of the reality that I am not in a battleground state, and so can vote third party with a clear conscience.

  22. “so can vote third party with a clear conscience”

    I’ve voted L for years. The electoral college system and the voting habits of my state mean my vote for a D or R is meaningless, but my L vote helps ensure that L candidates will continue to be on future ballots, and thus has a larger impact than a D or R vote would have.

    I’m disappointed in Johnson as a candidate, but still see him as better than either Hillary or Trump.

    I’m wondering which potential D candidates are now kicking themselves for not running this year.

  23. I’m wondering which potential D candidates are now kicking themselves for not running this year.


    Hillary would have found some skeleton in their closets and ruined them with it.

  24. The first article guy’s advice is actually good if you divorce it from the specific political situation. The reason he’s coming across as condescending is because he’s written it in a specific political context from the standpoint of assuming the other side is just being stubbornly wrong, which is always problematic when you’re talking about millions of people. But take his main points, and apply them to, say, a teen who’s in a snit, or a colleague who’s just bullheaded about some issue, and they work better.

    Don’t force them to defend their beliefs.
    . . . . when you tell people they are wrong, stupid, immoral or irrational, they simply dig in and get more entrenched in their views.

    No point in arguing and arguing with a teen.

    Provide information, and then give them time.
    . . . . If they can consider what you’ve said without carrying the additional burden of having to agree with you, it is more likely it sinks in a little bit.

    I find this to be true with my household teens. It’s an error to assume that just because they’re not responding, they’re not listening to what I said.

    Don’t fight bias with bias.

    . . . . If they are making a completely one-sided argument with selective (or misleading) evidence, don’t retaliate with a similarly biased or flawed argument to defend yourself. If there is some merit to their argument, acknowledge it.

    Helpful when dealing with people who get most of their information on current events from Reddit.

    Don’t force them to choose between their idea and yours.
    . . . . you will be much more effective if you encourage people to reconsider their perspective without saying that this requires them to adopt yours.

    That’s another way of saying, don’t keep arguing your point repetitively and give them time.

    Help them save face.
    . . . . How will they change their mind without looking like they have been foolish or naïve? [You can call him all the names you like just for using the little dots — diaresis, says Google — over the i.]
    Give them the cover they need. Often what’s required is some change in the situation—however small or symbolic—that allows them to say, “That’s why I changed my mind.”
    Let them in.

    Important for anyone, but *especially* with teens.

    Give them the cover they need.

    . . . .Often what’s required is some change in the situation—however small or symbolic—that allows them to say, “That’s why I changed my mind.”

    Let them in.
    . . . . If you want someone to stop clinging to a failing course of action or a bad idea, you will do yourself a huge favor if you reward rather than punish them for admitting they were wrong.

    I still remember how hard it was, as a teen, to come and rejoin the family circle after having had a big fight with my mom (it was almost always my mom). It’s not that she was doing anything to make it harder, just that I felt like acting like things were normal was an implicit admission that I was wrong and I didn’t want to do it even when I actually thought I was maybe a bit wrong! So I do try to use, basically, the same technique as I did when they were toddlers — when they’re back and speaking to you again, just be happy to see them. Don’t openly observe that they’ve returned — no “I see you’re back” or “Oh, are we speaking again?” — just look happy to see them. As an adult it is way, way easier to be the big person and act like nothing is wrong than it was as a teen.

  25. Sorry for the repeats! The text box is not the ideal space for formatting a long post.

  26. “Mark Twain’s memorable remark that “the critic’s symbol should be the tumble-bug: he deposits his egg in somebody else’s dung, otherwise he could not hatch it.””

    I always try to keep this perspective – it is easier to edit someone else’s work than to create original work from scratch – especially when someone else is reviewing my work.

  27. “Hillary would have found some skeleton in their closets and ruined them with it.”

    Perhaps not. She wasn’t able to to that to Obama.

  28. HM, I loved your post. Twin2 learned to tie his shoes yesterday. I worked with him even though I’m left-handed and he’s right-handed because Mr WCE hasn’t gotten to it and Twin2 is not particularly easy to teach. (Which is why he still couldn’t tie his shoes…) Twin2 stormed off in frustration a few times, and Baby WCE messing us up didn’t help, but observing my struggle with tying shoes right-handed (and watching me have to cheat and figure out how I did it left-handed so I could show him the right-handed way) seemed to encourage him.

    Not exactly what you’re saying, but the process reminded me how difficult new things are for all of us, especially perfectionists like Twin2.

  29. @HM – great post! I find that my 8yo needs to save face too. Over the weekend, he didn’t want to admit that he was wrong when I told him to wear a sweatshirt, so he went back inside & grabbed his raincoat. He said, “Well, I told you that I don’t need a sweatshirt, but I do need a raincoat!” (It was bright & sunny and 48 degrees.)

    Off topic, I am still bursting with excitement over the Cubs winning the pennant. I can’t believe that I am actually going to see the World Series at Wrigley Field this weekend.

  30. WCE – Right hand/left hand thing. Just FYI – when my mom was trying to teach a lefty to embroidery, she struggled until she had the lefty sit in front of her like a mirror. Worked amazingly well. Not sure about shoe tying though.

  31. And what if you have lost respect for the other person? I tend to cut them off/out and not deal with them anymore, where I can. (Admittedly, I’d be a terrible diplomat.) I am dreading the holidays because I don’t want to spend them with people for whom I’ve lost respect. Sadly that includes family.

    What will be difficult after this election is finding those who are willing to listen, and who you are willing to talk with, to see if any minds can be changed.

  32. “What will be difficult after this election is finding those who are willing to listen, and who you are willing to talk with, to see if any minds can be changed.”

    This, along with, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

  33. HM – Ha!

    I have a terrible, actually non-existent, poker face. What did RBG just counsel – purposeful deafness? Maybe I’ll try that.

  34. HM – I find Acting! terribly hard when I’m around family. It is much easier when people don’t know you as well!

  35. Kerri, lots of advice given on dealing with inlaws can also help with your own family in such circumstances. (Rueful grin emoji)

    On teens and advice, what works for us is for me to be telegraphically short in giving advice and explanation, then bite my tongue. To my son’s credit, he has come up with “stop being right so much”. That seems to help him save face while he caves. When things do get shouty, he’ll come around for a bit a short while later. It works best to express affection with no reference to earlier argument at that point.

  36. HM, when my brother and his then-girlfriend (now wife) we’re dating, they came to my parents house for a weekend visit when my sister and I were both visiting also, so had to meet the whole family at once. Months later they were telling friends about their Christmas plans in another city where my sister lives. My brother mentioned that it will be nice because they’d get to see my sister’s family and my parents, who were visiting for the holiday. His girlfriend practically shouted “your parents?! You didn’t tell me your parents were going to be there!” That surprised me because I was amazed at how completely comfortable she seemed around the whole family the weekend we met her. That’s when he pointed out that she is an actress. So ever since then, I’ve tried to make that my approach when I’m in situations I don’t want to be in. (And I’m sure she truly loves spending time with us – what’s not to love?! ;-)

  37. Austin, your story brings to mind Phil Mickelson, a right-handed person who golfs left-handed because he learned to golf by mirroring his dad.

    WCE’s idea of learning to do something opposite-handed is really good. It creates empathy with someone else trying to learn that task, and also forces you to really think through the steps.

  38. HM, thank you for your post at 2:01. I actually didn’t mean to trigger a political battle — I was ignoring the Trump/Clinton stuff and just looking at the strategy for persuading people. I’ve been running around a bit today and haven’t had a chance to keep up with my own post. I notice nobody seems to care about Dennett, and that’s okay.

  39. “I notice nobody seems to care about Dennett, and that’s okay.”

    There wasn’t much to disagree with or discuss in that article.

  40. MBT, I love that story.

    Rocky, I liked the Dennett article as well. It’s also good advice for writing a reply brief (although in that case, it’s not really necessary to list what you learned from the opening brief ^_^). Giving a fair summary of your opponent’s argument makes you come off as trustworthy to a neutral party (such as a judge) who will then hopefully be more inclined to consider your own argument.

  41. RMS, I was familiar with the Dennett steps, I think, in part because they are similar to the speaker/listener technique that we had to learn as part of premarital counseling.

    When we resort to speaker/listener technique, we know it’s a sign of a fundamental marital disagreement. :)

  42. Ok, I love that from reading the same article WCE’s mind goes to good communication techniques for a healthy marriage, and mind goes to presenting the appearance of good faith so as to gain a tactical advantage in argument. Lawyers represent! And, my poor husband, what he has to live with.

  43. ITA that biting the tongue is the hardest part — has been one of my biggest parenting lessons.

    We tend to use hyperbole a fair bit to sort of signal the emotions without it seeming so threatening or nose-rubbing. Today’s example:

    Backstory: she bought Eggos for a friend’s birthday present. She calls me today, friend is over, someone ate two Eggos, gift is “ruined” — “I am going to rip this family to shreds” etc. (half hyperbole so she can play it off as a joke if she needs to, but clearly upset).

    So I leave work a little early and swing by grocery store. Here are the ensuing texts:

    Me: got u more Eggos

    DD: Ok

    Me: Try again.

    DD: Thanks.

    Me: Thank you honored mother for leaving work early and making a special trip for me. [kiss emoji]

    DD: Thank you honored mother for leaving work early and making a special trip for me. [kiss emoji and to ok signs]

  44. LfB, HA! I do that to my kids all day, but that may just be an expression of my sense of humor and relative power.

    Kid: Where’s my Cheerios? I want my Cheerios NOW.
    Me: I think you meant “Oh most generous and loving mother that I adore, would you please assist me by bringing me some Cheerios at your convenience.”

    Kid must repeat the complete sentence or there is no cereal.

    Every so often I forget that I’m talking to the neighbor kid instead of one of my own, and you should see her face when I make her do it :D

  45. HM – great post. Completely agree with you on helping kids save face.

    Ivy – what an amazing experience for you! I don’t follow baseball at all but I can totally see how exciting it would be to get to see your team in the World Series. Enjoy! And report back!

  46. Being a lawyer involves a lot of getting people to agree to do things that they would rather not do, such as follow the law :)

    I have not given much thought to whether I use any of my argumentative techniques on my household. My hostile cross examination skills, however….

  47. Mom: Do you want more spinach?
    Me: Oh God no.
    Mom: You may address me as “Mother”.

  48. I should really up my game on making my kid repeat improvements on things he’s said. Mine tend to be short, like “oh yes mother, I’d love to” in a sappy but not sarcastic tone.

  49. HM – I agree that was a great post. What I think is when we see that applied to a kid it makes sense. I have to admit that sometimes when people try those tactics at work, it irks me to feel I’m being managed- like I’m a kid and I can’t see through these techniques! Maybe it’s a combination level of acting skills required plus some level of genuine thought that perhaps the person has not understood my direction completely- as we walk through it together, sometimes I made a mistake, or sometimes I saw something they didn’t see. It’s interesting how some employees always thought, “you are the boss, so you probably know better,” and some always thought, “‘I am more hands on than you and know more details, so I probably know better.” Both assumptions are not always true, so they should do the “challenge either politely routine.'”

  50. Ivy, I’m going to guess that this will be your first experience watching a WS game live and in person. :)

    You are in for a treat. IME, at very high-stakes events like this, there is a visceral, palpable sense of excitement that is nothing like you’d feel in a typical regular season game, and at a WS game it’s even higher than, say, a NLCS game.

    BTW, I have seen the Cubs in NLCS games, live and in person, back in 1989.

  51. “Mom: Do you want more spinach?
    Me: Oh God no.”

    Were you my brother’s kid, you’d probably have heard a response having to do with your recognition of him as your God.

  52. Just wait till you kids cross over into Eff You life’s too short territory. I save 90% of my family acting to make sure I do nothing to make myself unwelcome in my grandchildrens lives, the other 10% same task toward my children. As for other people, I try to be civil. If they overshare opinions, personal problems, even if I don’t find the topics offensive, I just spend my time elsewhere or if I really like them ask for a change of subject. I have no interest in converting anyone to my way of thinking and only mild curiosity in trying to figure out why they think the way they do.

  53. “Kid must repeat the complete sentence or there is no cereal.

    Great Minds. I used to do exactly the same thing.

  54. Scarlett, you will appreciate that I read my youngest The Fire Cat earlier this evening :)

    Now that few children’s authors are focused on civilizing their readers, most of what passes for children’s literature is dreadful. I can’t imagine wanting to read my future grandchildren Fly Guy, although I admit DS loves it (and now he flips out if anyone swats a fly).

    And RMS, I am once again disturbed by how similar I am to your mother, because that’s what I would say….

  55. Sky, yes I do appreciate that! “A fire chief knows many things” was one of our favorite ways of explaining why mom and dad were right, again.

  56. The culture and sociology of super-yachts:

    But one British academic has managed to penetrate this elusive milieu. Emma Spence has spent the last six years researching the industry, has crewed on superyachts around the world and shadowed a yacht broker in the tax haven of Monaco, observing how the boats are deployed to establish a pecking order among the super-rich. The researcher is completing a PhD on the superyacht scene and says the vessels are unique among prestige assets: unlike private jets they are not a useful mode of transport; unlike art and property, they always depreciate in value. Instead, as one owner told her, what makes a yacht desirable is that it “allows the super-rich to perform their wealth status”.

  57. unlike art and property, they always depreciate in value.

    While vacationing in the south of France, Prince bin Salman spotted a 440-foot yacht floating off the coast. He dispatched an aide to buy the ship, the Serene, which was owned by Yuri Shefler, a Russian vodka tycoon. The deal was done within hours, at a price of approximately 500 million euros (roughly $550 million today), according to an associate of Mr. Shefler and a Saudi close to the royal family. The Russian moved off the yacht the same day.

    Yuri had it built for $330 million 4 years ago.

  58. @Finn – You are correct. When our other team in town was in the WS in 2005, I did not go. That was exciting, but it wasn’t my team. At Wrigley this year during the NLDS, there were many references to the 1989 NCLS, but they avoided showing Will Clark’s most heroic moments for obvious reasons. ;)

    This super yacht article looks like it is up my alley.

  59. “This super yacht article looks like it is up my alley.”

    I found it perusing the MMM forum’s “Antimustachian Wall of Shame and Comedy.”

  60. “Among Marshall’s most prolific clients is the Brooklyn automotive tycoon John Staluppi, who names his boats after James Bond films. Last year, he ordered his 19th superyacht, the 66-metre Spectre, due to be delivered by the Italian Benneti shipyards in 2017. Thompson, who was involved in many of the projects, says Staluppi gets a new superyacht every 18 months to three years, compared with a client average of every five to seven years. “The first one I did was The World is Not Enough, then he sold that and bought Quantum of Solace, then he sold that and bought Casino Royale, then Diamonds are Forever. Right now we’ve got Skyfall and there’s Spectre on the way. He loves the creation side of it. But he doesn’t travel a lot. He uses them as floating homes.””

    He names them after Bond films? How delightfully trashy. I LOVE it.

    @Milo – I read those forums here & there when I am on a conference call. There’s some good tidbits there.

  61. I don’t like “super yacht” or “superyacht”. Sounds like the boat should have super powers. There should be an entirely different name for them. Meanwhile, I’ll just call them “yacht monsters”.

  62. I am amazed those boats float at all. They seem ready to lift off from the water into space.

  63. My son must have absorbed the comments about appropriate kid responses to mother from the ether. When I brought him some Cheerios this morning (he’s home sick), he said “oh, I thank you, my sweet and wonderful mother”. Probably means he’s planning a request, but I’ll enjoy this at face value.

    This reminded me of chatter about Milo’s parents, and made me laugh. It is under a minute, has no sudden increases in volume, is ads and funny.

    Meme, remaining non-controversially bland sounds like an admirable goal, but when carried too far, it brings an infuriation of its own. Not only is it hard to figure out conversation topics with a die-hard practitioner, I can’t even tell what to make for dinner!

    Mafalda, I agree. The tactics LfB describes can be wonderful emotionally nap intelligence or, practiced poorly, can be irritatingly infantalizing.

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