Well, perhaps the title of this post could use some work. Disagreeing with someone is remarkably easy – just ask any married man!
The real challenge is to disagree with people in such a way that you honor Christ and you help them. This is a lot more difficult. My work this week has had a few points where I have had to disagree with people and run the risk of disappointing them. I hate doing that!
What can be done to lessen the difficulty of disagreement? Three things come to mind: Clarity, Charity and Proportion.
What do I mean by clarity?
- Be clear about what you are disagreeing about. There are few things more frustrating than having an argument with someone simply because they do not understand what you are trying to say. People often have really bad habits in this area. For example, one of the things I do in my (small amount of) spare time is to serve as a mediator for the Maidstone Mediation Service. So when neighbors have an argument we can be called to help them sort it out. In a mediation session I observe people actively thinking of a response while the other person is still speaking. This prevents any genuine listening from occurring! How can you achieve clarity? Listen carefully, ask questions and try to feel what the other person is feeling. When you really feel like you understand their perspective then you will know whether you really disagree with them or not.
- Be clear about what has bothered you. Try to inspect your own thoughts, motives and statements. What do you really disagree with? Is it their content or their delivery? For example, my children will have arguments among themselves which sometimes adults have to sort out. Invariably, someone will need to apologize at the end. Apologies have a common content but not always a good intent. So the kids will say “I’m sorry” but not always mean it or say it with any kind of remorse. This is the difference between content and intent. Work out which one bothers you.
- Be clear about the details. As a church leader I am often the one who is forming new proposals for our church and submitting them to my fellow leaders. One of the frustrating things I get in return is a wholesale rejection of an entire proposal. Someone will say “I have an issue with this” or “This proposal has some problems.” In order to disagree helpfully, work out the details. Specifically, what are the areas of disagreement? What are the issues? Where are the problems?
Clarity will help us to understand where the real disagreements lie. This will, in turn, help us not to waste time and effort arguing about things which are trifling or even points of agreement. Clarity will also help us to focus our energy on the places where we will get the most impact. Resolve the most important issues and many of the lesser things will take care of themselves.
Charity is not a word people use often now in a good way. We have charity shops, charitable donations and we can give to charity. Yet the idea of receiving charity or being charitable seems somewhat outdated. What we can be is charitable – generous, giving and respectful. These are key aspects of disagreeing with someone helpfully.
We need to be generous in our estimation of other people’s inner lives. Often there is a world of difference between what someone has done and why they have done it. If we are uncharitable then we assume that someone has done something just to spite us. This is usually not at all true. Since we cannot possible know what someone is thinking we must stop ourselves from even trying. Too often our judgments of someone else’s motives are not based on facts but on selfishness.
Being charitable also means being restrained in what we say. Controlling our tongues is not an easy task. It is far easier and more selfish to simply let whatever we are thinking come flying out of our mouths. This is not usually very helpful. In fact, a loose tongue makes many arguments and disagreements more difficult to resolve. The original problem gets compounded by the addition of offended hearts and minds. Control your tongue before it adds fuel to the fire of your argument.
In the midst of a disagreement we can lose our ability to be respectful. It becomes too easy for us to slip into attacking the other person as an opponent rather than attacking the disagreement as a problem. How can we show respect for other people? Well, if our tongue is under control then we have time to think about what we are going to say before it comes out of our mouth. A key question to ask is “What is the object of this next statement?” If the object is a person then the statement may not be helpful. For example, we might say “This is a silly argument.” Such a statement is not likely to cause great offence. Yet if we said “You are a silly person” then we might make someone even more irritated!
If you can be charitable in your disagreements then you should be as generous as possible. Clarity will help you know where you can be generous and what you need to protect. Protect what is important and be charitable with everything else.
This is an easy way to finish. A cliche comes to mind which is very appropriate:
Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill.
Think about clarity again. Is the thing you disagree about really that important? Could you just leave it?
Think about charity again. Is the thing you disagree about really that valuable? Could you just give it away?
If we can keep conflicts in proportion then we can resolve them easier. The reason for this is simple. It is far easier to say “I’m sorry” for a small thing than it is to do so for a big thing. It is easier to repent of a small wrong than it is to turn yourself in for a big crime. It is far easier to heal a small wound than it is to perform surgery to recover from a vast trauma. Keep conflicts in proportion so that the resolution of them is simpler.
What do you think? Is this good advice?