How to Play Well With Others, aka Constructive Disagreement

So, now that my brain is able to relax a little after a whirlwind year of coursework, I’m looking through the various discussions and essays from my file. Most of the ones from my Business Communication course tied directly to the ministry work I’ve done and my perspective is therefore often different from most people’s. This past year was the first time I needed to use APA style instead of the MLA I had been used to.

Way back in the mid-1980s when I got my first job in a law firm, I found the concept of “argument” to be one I very well relate. Since I began writing in middle school, most of the work I have drafted was to persuade or convince the reader to adopt a certain viewpoint based upon the supporting ideas I presented. A legal argument presented by an attorney in a court of law is also an attempt to persuade a judge or jury to incline toward a certain leaning or understanding based upon the presented facts and evidence as well as supporting rules, regulations and laws, taking into account any extraordinary or extenuating circumstances. As a seasoned volunteer manager thirty years later, I can say that understanding how to persuade without “arguing” is something many people simply have not learned to do.

As a “Professional Cat Herder,” it has been my job to encourage and invite participation in projects from a volunteer base who has every option to participate or not. My years of success in my field are directly attributable to understanding how to find common ground first and foremost, be willing to play devil’s advocate to empathize with opposing viewpoints, and then still be able to summon up more proof toward the goal I am pointing toward than against to garner the enthusiastic participation of hundreds of dedicated volunteers. There have also been plenty of times where I have been convinced to go a different direction with the group based upon being convinced of a better idea. I choose to stay open to possibilities that way.

Julia Dhar’s talk on TED last October is a solid explanation of the purpose of argument being to persuade and not to fight. The concept is also timely since the media, music and entertainment we have been subjected to for the past twenty years has been overwhelmingly violent and combative. Truthfully, I do not watch television any more. I only keep the cable service because it runs my computer, and thus, my online coursework. My elderly mother sits in front of the “boob tube” all day arguing – in the combative sense – with everything from commercials to news shows to which house the Property Brothers’ client should choose. Being hit with all of that negativity and combativeness on a constant daily basis has crippled – in my opinion – our society by overtly imposing a culture of hate that seems to scream “disagree with everyone at all times for any reason at all!” I do not believe that such constant angst and chaos is our natural human state.

Whatever happened to “Love is all you need”? I think we need to bring that back post-haste. The more I encounter people who want to engage in a verbal fist fight and I empathize with their position, it seriously unnerves and irritates them that I’m not cooperating with their expected reaction of full-frontal verbal combat. I have experienced people actually getting upset with me, some quite so, simply because I had the nerve to listen and calmly state what I see as merits to both their own and their perceived opposing viewpoints. Talk about twilight zone kind of moments! What kind of world do we live in where people aren’t happy when you refuse to fight with them, or you have the nerve to actually agree?

The reason I chose this TED talk to share is because every single one of us is affected by the bombardment of media, music and entertainment today and all of its negativity and polarizing accusations and demonstrations of bad human behavior. If one truly believes that a single person or thing or concept is so inherently evil that it must be eliminated through hate, there is no hope for society, much less the smaller venue of the business world in which each of us must still interact and make our living. If you want to stand any chance of making a difference in the world, if you want your voice to be heard and listened to, and if you think you deserve to contribute your thoughts and ideas to make the world a better place, then you had better apply that Golden Rule when listening to others. Drop your guard and your agenda and truly hear. Without the ability to empathize, we see everything as arbitrarily good or evil, this or that, yes or no. Calming your own self to be able to listen to another’s viewpoint is the first step in being able to hear someone else and acknowledge the humanity that is not as easily catalogued as any stereotype currently in vogue. I believe that only once you can actually stand down and refuse to participate in the expected violent burst of emotion being demonstrated today can you begin to make a difference. You and I are human. Both of us, all of us. Just maybe the other person has some good in them or good ideas. Arguing used to mean debating merits of differing viewpoints, not taking personal affront to others for having the nerve to breathe or exist, much less not agree with us.

Julia Dhar’s talk is nearly 15 minutes, but the little slider scale at the bottom of the video allows you to speed it up a notch or two. It’s not preachy; rather, it tells mostly what we already know about what constructive argument looks like. Applying it, however, in our homes and spheres of influence, is entirely dependent upon each one of us. Arguing a point of view correctly requires mutual exchange and leads to the potential for understanding the other person’s view and the humanity that it came from. Understanding leads to empathy for the other person. Empathy leads to patience for differing views, and then can we finally broach – much less fathom – the suggestion of peaceful co-existence. Baby steps.


Dhar, J. (2018, October). How to disagree productively and find common ground. [Video file]. Video posted to


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