Disagreeing Well
Ashley Jowett
/ Categories: WELLNESS, 2022

Disagreeing Well

When people think of differences of opinion—about politics or vaccines, for instance—they often think of the person they disagree with as an acquaintance. It’s someone that they know from work or in passing. More than ever, the last year revealed differences of opinion even within nuclear and extended families and among close friends.   

“You assume that the people that you surround yourself with would agree,” said Katie Aiken , MSW, an outpatient/Blueprint clinician with United Counseling Service. “But that is not is always the case.”

When it becomes clear that a disagreement is eminent, many people opt to avoid the subject. “That is not really feasible when it’s a family member or someone you’re co-parenting with,” Aiken says. “You have to make decisions. These discussions have to happen.” As difficult as it is, it is possible for close family members to disagree and keep their relationships strong. Families who are able to disagree well have some important qualities in common.

Commitment  When a family is really bonded, Aiken says, they weather conflict more easily. “If they share the common ground of commitment, loyalty, and support, families can discuss differences from that loving and understanding foundation,” Aiken says. They start from the single perspective of genuinely wanting what is best for each other and their family. “That is one of the most important qualities that families can have, especially when they are working through issues like this.”

Mutual Respect  Aiken encourages families to put everyone on a level playing field in terms of their input. “From the main financial contributor to the 3 year old, everyone should be granted equal value in their opinions and have the sense that it is OK to express how they are feeling without fear.” A trusting relationship is key, Aiken explains. “It’s not about who’s the loudest.”

Humility  Aiken recommends taking a moment to remember the conflicts arising most frequently now are brand new. “We are all in uncharted territory. Very few of us are experts.” It is possible, she says, to draw different conclusions from the same set of facts. Similarly, embrace curiosity by focusing on learning. Try to understand why your loved one feels the way they do. “I go into these conversations with the understanding my goal is not to change someone’s mind,” Aiken says. “My goal is to truly understand them.”

Communication  Aiken encourages families to limit their exposure to the news. “The information that the news provides can be used for the purpose of proving each other wrong,” Aiken said. “It can add fuel to a disagreement.” Instead, express genuine feelings. She recommends beginning statements with the word “I,” rather than the more accusatory “you.”  I believe, I feel, I am concerned… Ask questions, and really listen. Then paraphrase their response, so you can check for understanding. “This is what I heard. Is that what you mean.” Aiken continues, “think before you speak. ‘Is what I am going to say going to be helpful or hurtful.’”

Compartmentalize  Following these concepts makes it far more likely that you will be able to reach a mutually respectful compromise on shared decisions or about how you will spend time together. Talk about the issues only when necessary. “Don’t criticize or be resentful,” Aiken suggests. Separate the belief from the person themselves and enjoy all of the things you do enjoy about them, Aiken says. “Their thoughts about a single issue don’t define them as a person.”

These skills—communicating respectfully to understand and support—are the foundations of healthy relationships. “That’s all we can ask for: to be respected for our decisions and our beliefs.”

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