On Navigating Disagreement

Navigating Disagreement

One of the most common questions I get from readers is what my tools are for navigating disagreement. This is usually in the context of homosexuality, Tarot, or yoga, when talking to others who are more conservative or have differing theological beliefs.

I’ve had a lot of practice on this front, considering that I grew up in a conservative family, in the Bible Belt, and I’m something of a black sheep. I’ve navigated this fraught terrain by trial and error, and intuition. The lessons I’ve learned in the 12 Steps have helped a great deal as well.

The first and most important step is to get your priorities straight. Is your priority to win the approval of another person? That will lead you down a blazing path to torture and self-abandonment. That leaves you feeling crazy, helpless, and hurting. There is no winning when we try to control others: other people will do or think what they want, and we had best relinquish control of them.

Instead, make your priority to conserve your energy. You have a limited amount of life force for a very short period of time on this planet, and we should focus that energy on the things that matter the most to us and that create the greatest possible good. Our emotional and mental stores of energy are not a renewable resource. Your first priority must be to protect this store of energy. Allowing others to manipulate how you use that precious resevoir is a great tragedy. A facebook fight might be tempting, but at best it’s a distraction, a drain on your precious focus and energy.

With this priority in mind, the following are my steps to navigating disagreement.

  1. Be kind. Don’t hurl insults, no matter how stupid the other person may sound. If you do hurl insults, it exposes your true intentions: that you care little about persuasion, and prefer the pleasure of flaunting your dominance over others. It doesn’t matter what you may think or feel of the other person, hurling insults and calling them names will not bring them to your side. If your goal is to win, you are shooting yourself in the foot by not being kind.
  2. Listen and then repeat back what you heard. “What I hear you say is…” and, when applicable, say “I understand why that would be concerning to you.”
  3. It is at this point that you must make a crucial decision. Is this person genuinely curious, or just looking for a fight? Is the person coming to the debate as an equal, willing to reason together, or do they just want to control you?
  4. If they simply want to control you, or you see the conversation going nowhere, state that you just don’t share their concerns and leave it at that. You don’t need to get into why. State that you understand where they are coming from, but that you just don’t share their opinion. And then move on. Don’t let them drag you into a debate.
  5. If they are coming from a place of genuine curiosity and want to dialogue, still be clear that, while you understand where they are coming from, you don’t share their concerns. Then express why. Allow the conversation to unfold.
  6. I also find it helpful to say that I can always be wrong. I don’t believe I’m wrong, but there is always the possibility that I’m missing something. This disarms the conversation, and allows people to be more vulnerable in the conversation.

How do you navigate conflict and disagreement? How have you learned to cultivate peace and protect your time and energy? Let me know if the comments.


4 thoughts on “On Navigating Disagreement

    1. I agree. When you’ve had to walk carefully to avoid rejection it makes sense to communicate wisely. There’s nothing more depressing than to see genuine people defending their perspective of faith when being attacked by trolls as bait.
      Enjoying your blog Stephen


  1. Hello Stephen,
    In the rooms, Over the past months, I’ve become more sensitive to my mental, emotional and personal feelings. With that said, I’ve found certain people to be disingenuous, and hurtful and hateful. And I have left those particular meetings, because I can’t be bothered to share the same space with them any more. I agree with everything you wrote above.

    At this stage of my life, I am hypersensitive. And I’ve made some changes in my dress, my looks and even my thinking. A good number of my friends, like to offer critique and judgment of me, in front of others, and to be honest, I cannot be bothered any more. I just walk away, saying nothing. What they have to say speaks more about them, than it does about me.

    I stay away from conflict, on social media and in my life on purpose. It sounds selfish, but N.I.M.B.Y. is my reasoning. If it does not concern me in my immediate surroundings, (read:here at home, in my city, or in my life) I shut my mouth and watch others create fireworks. Learning how to choose my battles is still on going.

    Being in community with certain people, who are older than myself, are set in their ways, or they just need to say something because they cannot help it themselves, I listen, and/or/choose to respond, or walk away. In the beginning, as this emotional shift began to happen with me, I offered my WHY, which brought on more discussion of judgment and conflict between those people I see in meetings, so now, I just don’t offer anything to them, as fuel, or like you said in an earlier post, “Not take the bait.”

    If I don’t necessarily have to engage, I won’t . Meetings are funny that way. If you go to a specific location, you sit in that room, with people, you are powerless over, and that takes some time to work out.

    I see others practice their entrance, their handshake and then the cold shoulder. Just by action, they state their intentions quite clearly. I am not that cold and calculating. I am at least kind, until the conversations turns into criticism or judgment.

    You’ve shared many solid thoughts recently and they all resonate. I believe, living on borrowed time, as of late, has made me aware of who I want to share space with, who I will entertain conversation with, and just how much crap I am willing to participate in. And that list is getting shorter by the day.

    My mental and emotional energy comes at a premium. And I am trying not to allow others of taking advantage of my “seemingly endless source of kindness and acceptance of arrogance and stupidity, because I sit in a room with you.” And to be the better person, acceptance is the key to all my problems, unless of course, I would rather not engage someone at all…

    Thanks for the post. It helped a great deal.


  2. Regarding this point:

    I also find it helpful to say that I can always be wrong. I don’t believe I’m wrong, but there is always the possibility that I’m missing something. This disarms the conversation, and allows people to be more vulnerable in the conversation.

    I have been trying this for years; I’d love to report that it has worked for me. Mostly, alas, it doesn’t seem to have worked. My interlocutors often use it as an opportunity or a springboard for pressing the attack harder. It seems to be taken as a sign of weakness, not as an invitation for reciprocal vulnerability (or, if it is taken as such an invitation, the invitation is not accepted). Have you had successes with it? What contexts do you think it tends to work best in? My most spectacular failures with it have been online and have not often had the benefit of points 2-5 (ie. it was in the context of a mostly polite but nonetheless entrenched Internet argument). I try really hard to model vulnerability and invite other people to do so, but none of it has worked.
    That said, I think admitting I might be wrong gives me certain benefits, such as weakening my engagement to my position so I don’t worry about losing face or anything silly like that. I also wonder if it also leads to pride in my moral and epistemological superiority. But that’s something for me to worry about, not something for you to worry about!


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