Most of us dread conflict because we’ve decided it’s a bad thing. It’s natural to think that way, Buster Benson, author of Why Are We Yelling? The Art of Productive Disagreement says. “It’s easy to understand why we think of arguments as nuisances, like weeds. We don’t have time to deal with this crap! Having a disagreement-free week, or even day, seems like the ultimate joy. Why should we wish for more disagreements?”
Benson says that if we can begin to think of disagreements as gifts, we can feel better about them and have deeper and more meaningful conversations. He offers three truths about disagreements that turn the current view of conflict on its head.
Truth 1: Arguments aren’t bad. They’re signposts to issues that need our attention.
Truth 2: Arguments aren’t about changing minds. They are about bringing minds together.
Truth 3: Arguments don’t end. They have deep roots and will pop back up again and again, asking us to engage with them.
If we can change our approach, he writes, we can discuss difficult issues and find common ground that would never be possible if we just try to bury the conflict. “Done right, arguments are opportunities. A productive disagreement is something you’ll look forward to rather than dread. It’s one that leads to a mutually beneficial outcome.”
Ultimately, handling disagreement well will result in fewer disagreements. Not because we’re quashing them, but because we’re finally resolving them so they don’t crop up again in a few days or a few weeks.
You’ll also become a bigger and braver person. Benson writes, “The world will become bigger, because you won’t be cut off from all the interesting conversations, ideas, people, and opportunities that exist on the other side of disagreements. You’ll find that you’ve become more willing to engage with scary people and ideas that you haven’t poked with a ten-foot pole in years.”
I know people who have been estranged from family members because of disagreement on politics, facemasks, gift giving and how to load the dishwasher. Our country is deeply divided now on almost every issue – except that we wish we could talk it through and learn to understand and tolerate each other.
Agreement feels good, so we tend to seek out and listen to people and sources that agree with our views. The problem with that is that we become more and more deeply entrenched in how right we are and how wrong the other guy is. Opposing (even slightly different) viewpoints seem increasingly foreign (read – evil and just plain wrong.) Agreement feels orderly, and that makes us less anxious.
Relationships and conversations need both order and chaos to be productive.
Benson cites marriage researcher Dr. John Gottman, who says that a relationship without conflict is a relationship without communication and is bound to fail. Gottman suggests that the right ratio might be 83 percent order and 17 percent chaos. Think of it as the spice that makes bland mashed potatoes interesting. (Garlic for me, black pepper for my husband.)
I think we’ve all felt uneasy about the way we speak to each other, especially about deeply held values (the most important conversations we could be having.) It feels almost impossible to find common ground, and social media just amplifies the meanness, the demonization of people who dare disagree with us.
Buster Benson says, “The way we argue is no longer working for us, and we need new conversational and mental habits to prepare us for today’s conversational climate.”
In a future post, we’ll talk about anxiety and dissonance – the real reasons conflict feels so bad.