you can disagree agreeably. H.E.A.R.’s how.

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Inevitably, different people will have different opinions. But what do you do when you’re totally at odds with someone else’s point of view?

Disagreement isn’t something to be feared. Instead of letting conflicts pollute your relationship with negative feelings, it’s possible to negotiate a way towards a better, happier state.

Making your disagreements healthier and more productive provides more than just a one-off benefit. Healthy dissent is a cornerstone of strong relationships (not to mention robust democracy).

Here are some expert tips to become a better, more thoughtful disagree-er.

Listen attentively.

Listening is an absolute must for healthy disagreement. And decades of research confirms: listening is much more than just not talking.

In 1957, psychologists Carl Rogers and Richard Farson coined the term “active listening” to describe in detail what good listening looks like. Fundamentally, it’s about focusing your attention on the other person.

The strong listener, they wrote, “actively tries to grasp the facts and the feelings in what he hears, and he tries, by his listening, to help the speaker work out his own problems.”

Active listening has three core components: back channeling, or inserting conversational cues to show that you’re listening (“mm” or “uh huh”); paraphrasing the other person’s words; and asking open questions that encourage the person to elaborate. These tactics turn the conversation firmly towards the speaker.

Sound challenging? It might be, if you see conversations only as a means of being heard.

Listening is a practice that may take, well, practice. Some people even compare it to meditation. “You have to clear your mind of everything else, so you can focus entirely on what the other person is saying,” New York Times ‘Corner Office’ columnist Adam Bryant says.

Find common ground.

In a framework for healthy disagreement developed by Harvard researchers, called H.E.A.R., two of the four principles address the importance of agreeing in order to disagree.

Those principles are captured in the middle of the acronym: the “E” is short for emphasize agreement, while the “A” is short for acknowledge the opposing perspective.

“This does not mean compromising or changing your mind, but rather recognizing that most people in the world can find some broad ideas or values to agree on,” Harvard’s Julia A. Minson says.

Emphasizing agreement can change the entire tenor of the conversation. If you recognize upfront that you and the other party have more in common than not, you’ll approach the discussion less as a pitched debate and more as a low-stakes chat.

Consider school mask mandates as an example. It’s an issue that divided Americans during the worst days of the pandemic — but much of the rancor could have been avoided by establishing common ground around shared goals.

If all parties to the discussion made clear that they had the same core goal (to keep kids healthy), there would have been less of an impetus to demonize opposing perspectives, or dig in and be “right.”

Acknowledging opposing perspectives, meanwhile, is less of a tonal shift and more of an action item. One of the best ways to accomplish this is to simply restate what the other person is telling you before you reply.

This approach — which echoes Rogers and Farson’s findings — has a number of benefits. You’ll not only signal that you’re listening and ensure you understand what’s being said but slow the conversation down. That lessens the odds of it turning into a screaming match.

Choose your words (and body language) carefully.

In Minson and her colleagues’ H.E.A.R. framework, if the “E” and the “A” are about finding areas of agreement, the “H” and the “R” are all about how you express yourself along the way.

The H stands for hedge your argument — or, in other words, stating outright that other perspectives than your own are valid. The R is short for reframing to the positive — that is, avoiding overly negative language.

Like in the definition of active listening, this is really about showing respect to your conversation partner. What you don’t want to do is shut down the conversation before it can even get started.

“Avoid negative and contradictory words, such as ‘no,’ ‘won’t’ or ‘do not,'” Minson suggests.

Times columnist Bryant tells the story of Lisa Gersh, the former CEO of Alexander Wang, who had to learn how to bring good energy to work conversations. As a lawyer, Gersh was used to staying cool, collected, and unbiased. But, in sitting with creatives, she found that projecting positivity was more important.

“When you lean in and you nod your head and you keep nodding your head when someone is pitching an idea … they get more and more excited,” she told Bryant.

Do you need to nod vigorously in talking through a disagreement? Not necessarily. Gersh’s bigger point is about having the right (read: positive) energy to move conversations forward.

That’s why Harvard’s Minson is so clear about avoiding negative words. And it underscores the value of simple politeness — which can be either active (showing gratitude and paying compliments) or passive (respecting the other person’s perspective and autonomy).

Sometimes, politeness is more about what you don’t say than what you do. Small cues like leaning in, turning over your phone, making eye contact, and mirroring the other person’s gestures convey that you’re engaged with the other person, even when you don’t necessarily agree with them.

Do you have any tactics for handling a disagreement with respect?

Photo by Mindspace Studio on Unsplash.

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