I Disagree. How Great is That?

Most of us would do almost anything to avoid conflict. From a spat with your spouse to an internet troll war, conflict feels terrible: scary, icky, even dangerous. But what if it didn’t have to be any of those things? What if conflict could be good for us – a chance to build relationships instead of burn them down?

That’s the premise of Why Are We Yelling? The Art of Productive Disagreement by Buster Benson. It’s an engaging and very readable look at why we have conflict in the first place and what might be possible if we embraced it rather than avoiding it. Benson is an entrepreneur and a former product leader at Amazon, Twitter, Slack, and Patreon. He now writes for a living, and it’s clear he has plenty to say.

He writes that the ability to disagree productively might be a superpower, a metaskill that can transform your life and just maybe, change the world. I’ve written about metaskills before – they’re master skills that apply to any skill you have or want to learn, magnifying and enhancing it. Benson writes, “Metaskills are super important to invest in, because if you get marginally better at having more productive disagreements—say, even 5 to 10 percent better—your life could get 50 to 100 percent better.”

Benson says the first step to productive disagreement is to figure out what kind of argument we’re having: a disagreement of the head, the heart, or the hands. “The easiest thing you can do to have more productive disagreements immediately is to remember to ask the other person: “Is this about what’s true, what’s meaningful, or what’s useful?” Is this about the head, the heart, or the hands? If you can agree on the answer, then you’re on your way.”

A disagreement of the head is an argument about facts – what happened or some other provable issue. Head disagreements cause anxiety about what is true. These are the easiest disagreements to settle, because the right answer exists in the world somewhere.  If you’re arguing with your friends about who is the greatest quarterback of all time, you can agree on what stats to measure (total yards, number of touchdowns, playoff appearances, or Super Bowl rings) and look up the data. Your challenge is to agree on criteria and a reliable source to verify facts.

A disagreement of the heart is about what is meaningful; these disagreements are about values and preferences. These are much harder to resolve because they’re based on personal preferences and experience. There’s no higher authority to appeal to; no one can judge who’s right. If you’re arguing with your spouse about whose responsibility it is to stay home with a sick child, you’re really arguing about values. Your challenge is to find a resolution that feels fair and respectful to each of you.

When a disagreement can only be settled with some form of test, or by waiting to see how things play out in the future, Benson calls it a conflict of hands. It is often concerned with the “how” of a situation. These disagreements’ resolutions are measured by their utility in the relationship over time; if the resolution works, it was effective. If it doesn’t, you’ll have to try something new. You know these when you see them: you get to pick the movie this time, and I get the next pick. We’ll try it your way, but if it doesn’t work, then we’ll do it my way.

Not all disagreements can be neatly categorized as just one of the above; especially in longstanding personal relationships. You might find that your argument touches all three in some way. When that happens, asking “What is this about?” can help you separate these different arguments and then agree on which one should be addressed first.

In future posts, I’ll share some of the advice Buster Benson gives about how to identify and address the anxiety that causes conflict.

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