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Experience October/November 2023

4 Ways You Can Learn to Agree to Disagree

James Gray Robinson


  • Understanding that our beliefs can change over time can reduce defensiveness during disagreements and help us focus on the person rather than the topic of debate.
  • Wanting to be right puts you in "Warrior Mode" and hinders communication; prioritizing happiness and allowing others to have different opinions can lead to more constructive discussions and healthier relationships.
  • When confronted with differing beliefs, shift from a confrontational mindset to a curious one asking open-ended questions and expressing genuine interest in the other person's perspective which fosters a productive dialogue.
  • By acknowledging shared beliefs and gradually expanding them, it's possible to find common ground, even in relationships where fundamental differences exist.
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I learned at an early age never to discuss politics, sex, and religion at the dinner table. If a disagreement arose, it would ruin the meal and my digestion.

As I found out as I got older, it could destroy relationships as well.

Denial, avoidance, and suppression has never been a healthy relationship model. So how do we deal with disagreement without destroying a friendship or causing a major rift? If my wife and I can do it, you can, too.

How to value friendships

I tend to lean toward conservative values, while my wife is a true-blue California progressive. At first, we simply agreed not to discuss hot topics like politics or candidates. It took some fancy footwork to avoid falling into the rabbit holes from which there are no return.

I’m 70, and my wife is a few years younger, so we at least have the buffer of many years of experience. The passion of youth doesn’t ignite the flames of rhetoric anymore.

I’ve learned a few lessons along the way that tend to avoid irreversible conflict and broken relationships, even with people who vehemently disagree with some of my beliefs. As a lawyer, you must understand what your opposing counsel is arguing to persuade the judge or jury of your cause. You can’t afford to dismiss an argument just because you disagree with it.

Lawyers often like to proclaim that they can argue either side of a debate and win. That skill is based on some principles that help us avoid conflict even if we disagree. I’ve developed a list of fundamentals that can help you focus on the person you’re speaking with, not the topic of debate. They’ve allowed me to at least have a healthy and loving relationship with someone whose principles are often much different than mine.

1. We’re not our thoughts. Just a few decades ago, neuroscientists believed that our thoughts were a function of our brains and that they never changed. Recent neurobiological research has discovered that’s not true, that our brains can change and, therefore, our thoughts change as well.

Scientists call this neuroplasticity, which refers to the brain’s ability to rewire itself in response to evolving thought patterns and shifts in the environment. In other words, the brain is forever changing its mind. By altering our thoughts, we create new neural pathways to support those thought patterns.

This is important for our relationships and interaction with others. We don’t need to be so defensive about our beliefs and opinions because they’re malleable and aren’t set in concrete. When we detach from our thoughts, we can realize that we’re an awareness separate from our thoughts that isn’t limited by those thoughts.

Thoughts are a byproduct of how our brains perceive and react to our environment. There are many factors in how our brains interpret what’s happening in our environment. Age, health, trauma, culture, and experiences color how we think, believe, and judge what we perceive.

As a lawyer, you may often deal with witnesses who have diametrically different versions of what they witnessed, even though the event was the same for all of them. Prejudices, bias, emotions, and beliefs alter reality. What we think and believe isn’t who we are. When we can have the grace to remember that applies to us and everyone else, what we agree or disagree on fades in importance.

2. Know the difference between being happy versus being right. I used to practice divorce and family law. I always asked my new client two questions: Why did you marry your ex, and would you rather be happy or right? Fortunately for my revenue, most clients would rather be right. While most of us would rather be both happy and right, few of us have the talent and skill to be both.

Being right presupposes that someone must be wrong. When we argue a point with the intention of being right, we must convince the other side they’re wrong. Relationship experts advise that that’s not a winning proposition.

Most people aren’t looking to be educated by others. In general, they have enough demands in their daily life and grow tired of having others—bosses, spouses, even children—tell them what they need to do. So they aren’t open to much criticism or admonishment in their unstructured free time. If you’re prone to proving others wrong, be honest with yourself about the fact that your arguments typically don’t change anything.

When we get into a disagreement involving right versus wrong, often we can activate our sympathetic nervous system, which controls our survival mechanisms such as fight, flight, or freeze. I call this The Warrior. This is part of our autonomic nervous system that regulates our body functions without conscious thought.

Be aware that when we activate The Warrior, we shut down our frontal cortex and rational thinking centers in our brain and become more animalistic in our behavior. This can trigger the other person’s Warrior, and neither party can find a solution.

By focusing on being happy, we deactivate The Warrior and activate the parasympathetic nervous system, known as rest and digest. I call this The Guru. When we’re feeling happy and The Guru is activated, we can communicate, connect, and problem solve. We’ll get much further being happy than being right.

When we’re chronically activating our Warrior mode, this can also have wide-ranging negative health effects. Being right can literally make us sick. How far are you willing to go to be right? Here’s a subtle but important shift in mindset. Instead of being right, simply allow the other person to be wrong. Thank them for their opinion and let them be. You’ll live longer.

3. Get curious. When we’re confronted with disagreement, we have a choice of activating The Warrior or The Guru. We do this subconsciously without thinking. It’s based on our genetics, experiences, beliefs, and the emotional state we’re in at the moment.

If you react to an opposing belief or idea in a negative manner, such right or wrong, you activate The Warrior. If you get curious and wonder why the other person believes what they believe, you activate The Guru. You can ask open questions that form dialogue and discussion, not argument and disagreement.

Statements like, “I never thought of it that way” or “That’s fascinating; I’d love to know more” invite discussion in a nonconfrontational way.

Relationships don’t have to crash and burn because you disagree on a topic. After all, if you generally have a friendly relationship with a person, there must be some areas you do agree on. And everyone has the right to their own opinion.

It’s critical that we say, “in my opinion” or “based on my experience” when we express our beliefs and opinion. When we make statements about our beliefs as if they were fact, we risk sounding dogmatic or preachy. When we approach discussions with an open mind and an open heart, they rarely get combative.

Our autonomic nervous systems receive sensory input at the rate of millions of bytes of data per second. This is called neuroception and occurs at least one-half a second before conscious thought. One of the primary means we use to determine friend from foe is facial expressions. We learned this as infants watching our mother’s face for clues of nurturing or upset.

When we feel defensive, we trigger The Warrior, and our facial muscles react to reflect that emotional state. When we’re curious and activate The Guru, we smile or relax, and our facial muscles reflect that emotional state. These subliminal clues often make the difference between a friendly discussion and an angry disagreement.

Finally, the key here is to make the other person feel safe. The primal survival mechanisms making up The Warrior are activated when we don’t feel safe. The Guru comes out to play when we do feel safe.

Statements like, “Our friendship is more important than any disagreement” will make other people feel safe enough to eventually open and let you express your opinion. Keeping the emotional states friendly and nonconfrontational will allow you to have a frank discussion without costing the friendship.

4. Focus on what you agree on. When my wife and I first started dating, we found out that there were some things we just adamantly disagreed on. These were mostly ideological and political issues. After all, she was a blue-dog liberal from California, and I was a redneck, over-educated Bubba from North Carolina.

Luckily for us, our relationship took priority over being right. As we got more comfortable around each other, I began to understand that I agreed with some of my wife’s positions. When I explained to her that I did agree with her on some points, she was able to look more closely at my beliefs and discovered that some of them had merit.

As we narrowed down what we disagreed on and expanded what we agreed on, we discovered that we weren’t that far apart. To repeat what I said above, when we felt safe, we found that what we disagreed on really didn’t matter.

I believe that politics is absolutely the last thing one should lose a friend over. Always look for ways to value the other side. When we verbally agree on whatever we can agree on, it’s easier to then agree to disagree. When we can agree to disagree, we can problem solve and come to an understanding. When we dig our heels in and refuse to even explore what we agree on, that’s impossible.

To maintain and grow a relationship, we must learn to be open minded and flexible. After all, perception is projection, and we create our own reality. I believe we can’t have too many friends, and losing one is on me. Relationships should be treasured and aren’t disposable. As a divorce lawyer who has been divorced twice, I learned only too well the cost of losing a loved one because of disagreement.

So would you rather be happy or right?