How to Deal with Disagreement

The PaulEkmanGroup came out with an article on disagreements over the holidays with family. Paul Ekman is world renowned for his discovery of microexpressions and his mapping of the face, which has led to his team training secret service and FBI on reading faces to assess threat. The show, Lie to Me, is based on Ekman's work. In other words, the following article has serious credentials and is worth your consideration.

Respectful Disagreements

What We Care About

I suspect that some of us will encounter disagreements about the president-elect, the state of the country, the world, and what to do about any or all of it during our holiday gatherings. How can we best deal with disagreements when they are about matters we care about?

When such a disagreement becomes apparent it may not be obvious whether we are both wrong or both right (if each of us is attending to a different facet of the same phenomenon), or one of us is right and the other wrong. Time will tell, but when it does, what should we do about it? Nothing is to be gained (and a lot can be lost) by trying to force the one who was wrong to acknowledge a mistaken judgment. That won’t bring the two of you closer. Our goal when we disagree should be to act now in a way that will not interfere with collaboration in the future on what we can reach agreement about.

Respectful disagreement acknowledges the benefits for each of us to advocate what we believe to be right even if it turns out we were wrong. We usually learn less from those who agree with us than from those who disagree. Exploring our disagreement won’t get anywhere if it is regarded as a zero-sum game. But, if it is pursued without rancor, disagreement can be enlightening to both parties.

The Nature of Emotion

The nature of emotion, as I understand it, makes that difficult. A number of our emotions are aroused when we are pursuing a goal. If the goal is important but is blocked, we're likely to become frustrated. Frustration is the breeding ground for anger, directed at whatever or whoever is seen as blocking us. We won’t be able to resolve a disagreement or remove the block to our pursuit of a goal if we act out of frustration, angry at the person blocking us.

What are we to do? The old adage of counting to ten has its use. We need to calm down and refrain from taking action motivated by the anger arising from our frustration. We need to focus on the actions that are blocking us, not on the actor. Sometimes this means recognizing the need to postpone pursuing the disagreement until the emotion it has evoked has calmed down. Impatience for quick resolution usually should be resisted, not indulged. Instead, we should attempt to learn from the disagreement.


If neither person clings to a position, much can be learned. Remember the other person is just as convinced as you are that he or she is right and you are wrong. Try seeing the situation as the other person sees it. Think of it as role-playing in which you take the other person’s perspective and arguments, articulating them as if they are your own. Could you switch sides, as debaters do? If you do, you will each learn from the experience, knowing better what you disagree about, and perhaps softening the force of the disagreement.

Give it a try.

Paul Ekman is a well-known psychologist and co-discoverer of micro expressions. He was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME magazine in 2009. He has worked with many government agencies, domestic and abroad. Dr. Ekman has compiled over 50 years of his research to create comprehensive training tools to read the hidden emotions of those around you.

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