The Best Way to Disagree

Historically, civilization flowered where differing points of view collided. Centers of trade were the cradles of civilization — Babylon, Egypt, Greece — every place where different cultures had an opportunity to interact, humankind made significant advances — in technology, in language, in science, in architecture, in philosophy. Advances come very slowly to isolated tribes in remote regions. They can go thousands of years and hardly change at all.

The clash of differing points of view creates room to think new thoughts. It expands the limiting perception of a single point of view. When disagreeing points of view come together, something new can be created.

If you only had one eye, you would be unable to detect depth. When you reached for a glass of water, you would be unable to know exactly how far away the glass was. What makes depth perception happen is having two eyes that disagree. Each eye has literally a different point of view. It is the disagreeing points of view that allow us to perceive three-dimensional space.

In the book, A More Perfect Union: The Making of the United States Constitution, by William Peters, you can read the fascinating story of how the Constitution was born. It required a large group of intelligent men, arguing all day, every day, for months, to create that Constitution. Each man had his own point of view, and fought hard for the interests of his state.

The result is one of the miracles of history. There are so many people in the world wanting to move to the country with this Constitution, our government finds it necessary to bar most of them from coming here. And the greatness of the Constitution was created by the power of disagreement. Disagreement can be very productive.

This is equally true about you when you're dealing with people in your life. Your relationships will have depth and power only to the degree it has plenty of disagreement.

According to the research, married couples who are intimate argue often. Not painful, hurtful conflict, but argument, debate, disagreement. These couples think conflict is natural and they don't get terribly upset that they argue. Their attitude contrasts sharply with most couples who seem to have a conflict phobia. But without conflict, relationships are shallow. They lack depth. They lack intimacy.

Disagreement is powerful.

To harness the power of disagreement, it helps to learn to make a few distinctions. All statements are not created equal. To make an argument productive and constructive, it helps to know the difference between these four kinds of talk:

1. Observations
An observation is a provable, verifiable reality. For example, "The water is on and the sink is overflowing." That statement contains two observations.

I may think you slammed the door, but you may think you only closed the door, so "You slammed the door" is a theory (which we'll get to in a minute), but "the door is now closed" is an observation.

To say an observation is to say specifically what you see and hear. A person who is not making this distinction might say, "You're not listening." A person who is making this distinction might say, "You have looked at your watch four times and you haven't said anything in at least ten minutes. Do you have something on your mind?" Not only is this easier to take and less likely to be perceived as an attack, but it's closer to the truth as you know it, unless you're a mind reader.

What about the statement, "You never listen to me." Is that an observation? Not likely. It is probably an overgeneralization. It is an accusation, probably inaccurate, and so doesn't qualify to fit the category of "observations." Try to translate overgeneralizations into a statement of what you want (see below).

2. Feelings
A feeling is an emotion or a physical sensation. For example, "I feel angry." Feelings are very basic: anger, embarrassment, discomfort, guilt, fear. The more specific, the better. If a feeling isn't basic, it's not a feeling. "I feel that you are a jerk" is a theory. You-are-a-jerk is not a feeling.

"You feel angry," is also a theory. You cannot know the feelings of another, although you can guess. It is legitimate to ask, "Do you feel angry?" But it is not productive or helpful to say you know something that you in fact do not know, even if you're very good at reading the faces of other people.

3. Wants

A want is a desire, a wish. For example, "I want you to speak more quietly."

Contrast that with: "You are yelling at me." That's a theory.

A person unable to make the distinction between a want and a theory might say, "I want you to quit being a jerk." This has too much interpretation in it. A person who can distinguish between a want and a theory might say, "I want you to put your clothes in the hamper."

4. Theories
A theory is an unproved proposition, assumed for the purpose of argument. A prediction is a theory. For example, "It's going to rain tomorrow."

An interpretation is a theory: "You're just saying that to shut me up." It may be true, but unless the other person admits it, it is only a theory. Any guess that one person makes about another's feelings or intentions is a theory.

An evaluation or judgment is a theory. "You're lazy!" is an unproveable statement. It is not an observation. It is not a feeling. It is not a want. The statement "you're lazy" can only be verified by agreement with others. But agreement does not and cannot elevate a theory into a fact. No matter how many people agree with you that the world is flat, the world is still round.

If you want to attain intimacy, you must be willing to enter conflict. You must be willing to argue. And to make an argument productive, it helps to know the difference between those four kinds of talk.

You've probably noticed that when you're arguing with somebody, the talk usually consists of one theory after another. And disagreements about theories are difficult to resolve because they are too abstract. They are too far removed from real life. For an argument to get anywhere, you need to talk about something real. Observations are real. Feelings are real. Wants are real.

To make a disagreement productive, say what you feel, say what you want, and if — and only if — you are crystal clear on the difference between an observation and a theory, say what you observe. Warning: When you're angry, it'll be more difficult to tell the difference. It is usually best to refrain from talking at all while you're angry. Take a break and calm down first.

In an argument, it is usually unwise to state a theory. If you think of a theory to say, break it down into an observation, a feeling, and/or a want.

For example, a woman brings home Chinese food. Her husband gets mad because he told her to let him know if she is bringing dinner home. He has another dinner already prepared. He says, "You never do what I ask." That's a theory. It's an overgeneralization and an accusation (not an observation), it's not a feeling and it's not a want.

If he wants to translate it, he could start with his observations: "I have already cooked dinner. You didn't let me know you were bringing food home."

Then he can go on to his feelings: "I feel angry and frustrated."

Then, wants: "I want you to promise me if you're going to do this in the future, you'll call me and let me know."

This kind of communication is easier to deal with, increases understanding, and gets things done. A discussion is much less likely to devolve into an counterproductive conflict when you stick with the first three kinds of talk.

What can a person do with a statement like, "You never do what I ask?" Nothing. You can argue about it for three days and never get anywhere.

But by sticking with observations, feelings and wants, the communication is clear. You become understandable. The other person knows what you feel, what you want, and maybe has learned a new fact or two.

I've found when I'm trying to limit my speaking to only observations, feelings and wants, there isn't as much to say. I end up doing a lot of listening, which in an argument is a good thing. If the person you're arguing with is mad, they will unload almost nothing but theories into the airspace. It is sometimes helpful to ask, "What do you want?" or "What do you feel?" But sometimes it'll just make them mad.

It's difficult to stay with observations, feelings and wants. Theories keep slipping in there and messing things up. But if you focus and practice, you can get better at it, and your relationship will get better right along with it.

Remind yourself of the four kinds of talk and in discussions, avoid number four:

1. observations
2. feelings
3. wants
4. theories

Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Direct Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

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