The Art of Disagreement

Crews Varner
May 1, 2023

I’ve made a grave mistake this week. I logged onto Twitter.

I know, I know. What kind of psychopath uses Twitter? You can spend thirty minutes on that website and end up losing more than 20% of the cells in your brain (Note: I completely made up this statistic, but it’s probably true.) Don’t worry, I’m not using this post to bash Twitter’s website like I did last week. Something I’ve noticed in recent years is that many people are incredibly argumentative on social media. Scrolling through tweets, comment sections, and live-stream chats, you’ll find that with many people if someone disagrees with them, their default response is to lash out at the other person. However, something I admire about the creative community is that the common response to criticism is rarely a negative one. Perhaps this is due to criticism and disagreement being so commonplace. Artists are just used to others criticizing their work, so they understand that personal attacks don’t have any value. There’s a very stark contrast to how these two groups of people respond to disagreements, and it got me wondering, why does the concept of disagreeing with someone have such negative connotations in the first place?

Looking back at my own life, I have previously struggled with conflicts more than anyone. Growing up with anger issues as an early adolescent, I had astounding difficulties with pride and I couldn't take no for an answer without throwing a fit. As I’ve matured and learned that disagreements are more often a positive thing, I’ve also learned that the majority of people struggle with ego in some way like I have. I’ve been reading through a book by Ryan Holiday called “Ego is the Enemy” and he explains beautifully why self-importance is at an all-time high in our society.

“Now more than ever, our culture fans the flames of ego. It’s never been easier to talk, to puff ourselves up. We can brag about our goals to millions of our fans and followers—things only rock stars and cult leaders used to have. We can follow and interact with our idols on Twitter, we can read books and sites and watch TED Talks, drink from a fire hose of inspiration and validation like never before.”

I believe this is a huge contributing factor to why disagreeing with others is viewed as a negative experience. We allow our thoughts and feelings to become a part of who we are. In America, you see this in our politics as well. American politics have this sense of tribalism and self-identity associated with them. So, when you disagree with someone politically, that is automatically an attack on their person because they have made it a part of who they are.

These concepts are part of the road toward the death of civil discourse.

How do we express our disagreements in a civil way?

The solution isn’t to stop sharing out disagreements entirely and just keep our feedback to ourselves. Different perspectives add tremendous value to improving any piece of work or solving any problem. On a societal level, disagreements will always be viewed as a negative thing, but on an individual level we can view them for what they are; stepping stones towards greatness. We need to begin by detaching ourselves from our thoughts and opinions. This is a common practice in mindfulness and meditation. Instead of attaching your thoughts and beliefs to your identity, observe them from an objective standpoint. Andy Puddicombe, co-creator of Headspace, taught me the value of meditation and says to visualize our thoughts as clouds on a sunny day just passing by. This is fantastic from a standpoint of discourse as well. If you were cloud-watching and someone comes by and tells you “I don’t like that particular cloud much.” It’s quite difficult to be personally hurt by that. It’s a silly analogy, but I’ve found that it helps tremendously. Observe your thoughts, for they do not define you.

The next step is to be mindful of our ego. We all have an ego whether we like it or not, and if we don’t keep it in check, it can seriously hurt our interactions with others. Before taking responsibility for my massive ego, my goal in arguments was to change the other person’s mind and/or prove them wrong. This wasn’t a healthy goal to have, as it shifted the focus away from the true purpose of disagreements. Sharing our perspectives and how we came to our conclusions is the purpose--not trying to change other people’s minds. Changing the beliefs of others is a byproduct of good arguments, but when that becomes the main goal of discourse, the intent is rather malicious.

Even if you’re in the right, even if you’re correct, how you respond to people is vital. The difference between an attitude of “I told you so” and “I can understand why you came to that conclusion” is HUGE. The entire point of criticism is to improve other people, so there really is no need to belittle anyone while giving your two cents. This is why I never really understood the “brutally honest” type of person. You can be 100% honest with others without being brutal. Simon Sinek explains this way better than I ever could (2-minute video).

Our culture will likely always conduct arguments and disagreements poorly among one another. People will be hurtful towards you when sharing their opinion or criticism of you or your work. However, making this change to focus on kindness, empathy, and objectivity will make a massive difference in your life. Treating others better than they treat you is much easier said than done, but this will contribute massively towards your growth at work, with your relationships, and more.