Can’t We All Just Disagree? Reviving the Lost Art of Civilized Disagreement

Imagine you’re part of a group coming together to agree on a make-or-break decision. Which of these scenarios would you prefer: 1) After an amicable (and blessedly) brief conversation, everyone easily agrees to go along with the majority or 2) A heated debate ensues, with people from opposing viewpoints passionately arguing their respective positions?

If you ask me which scenario would make me more comfortable in the moment, my choice might be  scenario 1. But if you want to know which scenario is more likely to lead to a better decision, the second one is the clear winner, but only if the meeting leader knows how to help participants have a constructive debate.

And therein lies the problem: We seem to have lost the capacity (or appetite) for having civilized disagreements.  And not just because our country has become so polarized, though that’s certainly a contributing factor. Many of us simply don’t have the mindset, skills or desire to engage with people who hold divergent perspectives. We carefully curate our information and conversations, preferring to engage only with those who have similar views. And when we encounter opposing viewpoints, we do the equivalent of unfollowing on FaceBook or Twitter: We simply stop talking and walk away.

So how can we encourage and enable conversations where people of opposing viewpoints can listen without judgement and learn from each other, and perhaps even reach true agreement on matters of importance, rather than simply caving in to avoid a disagreement?

Here are some tips for meeting leaders and participants, culled both from my own observations and from authors of some recent excellent articles and timeless books. See links below.

  • Read the subtext. It can be hard to grasp what’s really going on in the thick of conflict, especially while you’re trying desperately to think of a way to get the conversation back on track. But it certainly helps if you have some inkling as to the cause of the conflict, so you can decide how to most effectively intervene. For example, you might try one approach if the source of conflict is the fact that one person is constantly interrupting others, and another tactic if you sense that the source of disagreement is a difference in values or principles.
  • Break through the noise. When people are interrupting and talking over each other, as the meeting leader, you must find a way to intervene. If you’re face-to-face, you can use both your voice, perhaps raised a few decibels to penetrate the volume, and your body language, maybe making a “T” with your hands to indicate a time-out, or moving toward those in conflict, making meaningful eye contact. In a virtual meeting, your voice is your only means by which you can shift the dysfunctional dynamics. Try something like: “Sorry to interrupt, but I need to call a pause here to describe what I’m observing.” Allow a moment of silence before you continue to make sure you have everyone’s undivided attention.
  • State the you’re observing and why it’s a concern. Use neutral language and focus on the dynamics you’re witnessing, rather than anyone’s behavior. So instead of saying: “Laura and John, you two need to calm down and stop interrupting each other,” try something like: “I notice that a few of you are passionate about your ideas, which I suspect we can all learn from. In fact, I hope that everyone here has some equally passionate perspectives to share. I am concerned, however, that if everyone doesn’t have an opportunity to state his or her perspectives, we may end up making an ill-informed decision. Plus, I sense that some of you might agree just to shift the dynamics.” Pause again for validation. When in person, you can seek affirmation through eye contact and body language. When remote, try asking something like: “Is anyone else sharing this concern?” Pause for as long as it takes for at least one or two people to voice agreement before moving on.
  • Propose a solution that ensures the psychological safety of all. The “best” solution will depend on the available time, number and location of participants, relative sense of urgency, quality of relationships and other factors. You may want to propose a process that allows everyone to state his/her perspectives, along with underlying rationale and assumptions, one at a time. (If you’re using some kind of virtual meeting tool, allow people to participate both verbally and in writing.) Be specific about your proposed process. For example: “Let’s go around the room and have each of you complete this sentence: ‘The option I like best is ­­­­_____, and my main reason is ______.’ I will record your responses where all can see. Since we have just 10 minutes and 10 people, everyone has up to one minute to respond. But first, I will give everyone a moment of silent reflection to gather your thoughts.” Pause and then quickly restate the sentence to be completed. You may also want to restate your instructions if in doubt.
  • Ensure that all follow the process, and be prepared to tweak if needed. Emotions or enthusiasm may get the better of some people, who may transgress the “rules,” whether unwittingly or intentionally. If this happens, intervene to either get people back on track or to seek consensus on a process change. For example: “Laura, sorry to interrupt, but you only have 15 seconds left to share your reasoning, which is something important for all of us to understand. Everyone has just 60 seconds to state their views.” If the process isn’t working, be prepared to propose options, such as extending the meeting time, asking people to post (or type in) their ideas, or scheduling another meeting. Make sure that all participants have an equal opportunity to be heard and understood.
  • Emphasize the need for shared learning. If we only speak with (or listen to) people we agree with, we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to learn and form new ideas. Thanks to our ability to create our own customized news sources, it’s easier (and usually more comfortable) to converse with those whose values and beliefs mirror our own. Remind each other (and yourself!) that to make well-informed decisions or to generate truly innovative ideas, we need diverse perspectives and divergent viewpoints, which means intentionally opening ourselves to ideas that challenge our own ways of thinking.
  • Decouple people from their ideas. Most people (especially Americans!), want to be well-liked. If someone doesn’t agree with our ideas, we often take it as a personal affront. Similarly, we may be reluctant to criticize someone else’s ideas for fear of hurting their feelings. So even though we might be asking ourselves: ““What was she thinking?”, we might outwardly express only mild skepticism, along with a heaping dose of praise. It’s helpful to remind everyone that they are there to examine the quality of our respective ideas, rather than assessing each other as human beings. Having a meeting norm such as “Challenge ideas vs. those who propose them” might be helpful.

When you need to make an important decision as a team, allocate the needed time for conflict and disagreement. Encourage people to state their views from multiple perspectives, especially when the decision will have a significant impact. Create an environment where people can challenge each others’ thinking safely, in respectful ways. Remind yourself that decisions that are easiest and fastest to reach are often not the best.


White Paper and Past Communiques by Guided Insights:

Guidelines for Successfully Navigating Your Way Through Conflict– free downloadable whitepaper (PDF)

Combat Rude Behavior with Radical Civility

Why Conversations Sometimes Feel Impossible and How to Bring Them Back


Articles and books

Advanced Facilitation Strategies: Tools and Techniques to Master Difficult Situations by Ingrid Bens

How a Great Conversation is Like a Game of Catch – by radio host Celeste Headlee – article and video

How to Save a Meeting That’s Gotten Tense – HBR article by Joseph Grenney

Why We Should be Disagreeing More at Work – HBR artcle by Amy Gallo

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