When people hold opposing views and yet decide to engage with one another in casual conversations or formal debates, “Agreeing to Disagree” is the modern time’s expectation and suggestion for an optimal result.
This strategy is particularly employed in those contexts where the persuasion of one party to adhere to the points of view of the other one is neither a goal nor a possibility, given the nature of the initial clashing beliefs and perspectives.
“Agreeing to Disagree” is seen as a courteous, elegant way to end a conversation in which polarized views would rather lead to conflict if less than skilled communicators would be involved in the interaction.
Believers and skeptics usually agree to disagree after debating topics such as the afterlife, the existence of (a) god, or the possibility of treating illness through any ways other than those supported by mainstream scientific evidence.
Even though the method is mostly used in formal contexts – scientific, political, education, etc. – private relationships also see many such resolutions.
Agreeing to disagree is a method of communication that proved its effectiveness over time especially because it averts conflict. It is a way in which people signal to one another that the line toward quarrel is extremely near and the situation can quickly escalate into an aggressive environment.
The strategy thus seems to protect relationships of various kinds from being dissolved by subjects for which the parties do not find common ground.
But is “Agreeing to Disagree” as effective as ‘advertised’? Should it continue to be used and promoted as a powerful tactic to manage communication when polarized views do not allow an outcome that comfortably accommodates both/all of them? Do relationships truly survive when the method is being used? And how does it impact the individuals themselves? Most importantly, if more and more people would agree to disagree, would conflict finally become a thing of the past?
I think not.
Here is why I believe it is time to retire the ‘Agree to Disagree’ strategy and where I think we should take communication instead.
- The main clue that points to the fact that the method cannot trigger a sustainable future is that it relies on the idea of tolerance. Agreeing to disagree means to tolerate a view that is different from the ones you entertain, without accepting it. I do not find anything wrong with not being willing to accept a certain view, regardless of what that view may be, but I find many things wrong with only tolerating it (and the person holding the view).
In a previous article, I addressed the necessity of moving social attitudes and actions beyond tolerance if we want to build cohesive communities that work together to achieve common goals. Tolerance is required, yet not enough to bring people with opposing views together.
- “Agree to Disagree” is something you say, not something you mean.
It’s a declaration of stance, a signal, but not the full message.
Person 1: “I believe people have a soul.[Here are my reasons.]”
Person 2: “I don’t think there’s anything more to men than biology. [Here are my reasons.]”
Person 1: “Let’s agree to disagree.”
Person 2: “OK.”
What does this mean? The people seem to remain in the same positions they started the communication in. And yet, further communication did happen and there is a distinct outcome (people stopped talking about the subject) that shows the relationship between the two people has been transformed by it. But why are there missing bits of communication then?
This happens because the ‘miracle’ formulation is a shortcut. It obscures the actual message(s) that triggered the outcome.
Since it hides meaning to protect its emitters from a potentially negative outcome that could be attributed to them, the method is a passive-aggressive one. None of the persons involved in the interaction I presented above want to be seen as the one who started a dispute. So they protect themselves and (maybe) the relationship by jumping to a formula known to interrupt that development.
So, what does “Let’s agree to disagree” stand for?
I can think of at least two types of messages obscured by this formulation.
- At best, “Let’s agree to disagree” simply means “Let’s just drop it”. It conveys the desire to stop communication on a certain subject. Even though the relational implications of the shortcut in this context do not seem significant, I still believe the method should be avoided since it is not authentic. Assertive communication (meaning a non-passive, non-aggressive type of communication) would rather support the open expression of authentic messages. In this case, one could directly say “Let’s just drop it”, and maybe even state the reason why they consider it the best option. “I think this conversation is circular/nonsensical/not interesting enough for me/not going anywhere/useless/etc.”
You may now think that this approach is rude, but I ask you to consider the long-term effects of genuine conversations and relationships. We would all know where the other one actually stands on a topic, we would be able to make our own decisions based on that, and most importantly, we would not feel that conveying what we really think/believe/feel could be judged and/or used against us.
We would be less vulnerable, more confident, and more engaged in our relationships because things would actually be what they seem. Authenticity leads to higher levels of trust. How many of our relationships lack that? We value honesty and we tend to be less critical or unaccepting of people who wear their heart on their sleeve.
I also believe that things should not simply stop at “Let’s just drop it” either. Although stopping a conversation before it turns into conflict is a good short-term solution, one should not be or become intolerant toward certain topics. Creating a list of taboo subjects in a relationship may lead to bottled-up frustration, feelings of not being valued or understood by the other person, and may even endanger the relationship itself if the themes are meaningful enough for any of the parties involved. I strongly believe that people should display the ability to discuss topics that may not necessarily be comfortable for them. These don’t have to be extended conversations, we have the right to refuse communication as well, but there are times when our discomfort signals a deeper reason for our choice of not engaging in a discussion, and avoidance of problematic stimuli is not always a good coping strategy. We should at least be able to listen to opinions different from our own without directing anger or severe judgment toward the person holding or conveying them.
- The second type of message likely to be obscured by “Let’s agree to disagree” is an aggressive one. When people converse on controversial topics and they are strongly convinced that their own stance is the right one, the decision to stop the conversation will avert open conflict, but the attitudes leading to the decision are very likely not of the peaceful, assertive kind.
In these contexts, the message may actually look like this:
“[Declared] Let’s agree to disagree, [undeclared] you moron!”
Now, we are free to think that people who do not share our opinions are “morons who simply don’t get it/ idiots with the brain the size of a peanut/ etc.”, but if our goal is to be part of an undivided society, these attitudes toward views different from ours do not help.
Agreeing to disagree, in these situations, is a lie. It’s a manipulative message that hides aggressive beliefs and even intentions.
Being able to accept that others may have their own reasons to believe something you do not, that people even have the right to hold irrational views (you have them too, don’t think you’re any different from the rest of us, no matter how extensive your knowledge or how developed your critical thinking skills) and the right to act upon them, is part of an assertive, supportive, helpful mindset and behavioral background.
It’s okay for us to try to convince others that the arguments we use in support of an opinion are valid, but being able to accept that others may (still) not be convinced by them is part of an assertive mindset. People with views different than yours should still be seen as equals, not ‘less than’ those who resemble you. Notice and understand differences without creating a hierarchy based on subjective criteria.
Stating that you are at a point where “Agreeing to Disagree” is an option when in fact you consider the other person less knowledgeable, less intelligent, less resourceful, etc. is both a lie and a manifestation of an aggressive attitude.
There is no growth or collaborative potential to that situation. It’s unhealthy competition, where both parties think they’re right and the other one is wrong. Spoiler alert, no one actually wins.
Socially, there isn’t much to gain from such contexts. Even if the internal aggressive stance will never turn into open conflict, the people entertaining such mindsets will tend to isolate themselves from those who are different and only engage in a meaningful way with people who resemble them. Even though this type of behavior seems to be supported by our biological mechanisms, I think we can find a balance between keeping in touch with those who share our views and interests, and at the same time also engage constructively with those who do not. I see no point in promoting strategies that trigger social isolation.
I believe that by replacing the “Agreeing to Disagree” strategy with the authentic messages that it usually hides, and engage in meaningful, nonantagonistic conversations about the underlying thinking patterns and expectations, we can create a stronger social connection between individuals and groups with opposing views.
This would lead the way to collaboration, new perspectives and shared achievements and goals.