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Discourse Over Discord: How to Disagree with Grace

French essayist Joseph Joubert said, “It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it.” He believed discussing diverse ideas holds more value than coming to a consensus, and I agree.

You don’t have to be on the internet or watching TV for too long before encountering evidence that our society doesn’t share Joubert’s opinion. The relentless noise of news and social media seems to have drowned out discourse and stoked dissent.

A thriving democracy needs opposing views, but these days, there is little room for differences of opinion. People have become emphatic about certainty and consensus, falsely believing everyone needs to agree.

What motivates you?

The heart of this issue lies in motivation. Are you driven by persuading others to agree with you, or are you motivated to gain mutual understanding and respect? Unfortunately, the latter option has become the expectation, not the rule.

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with rhetoric. Persuasive speaking is a cornerstone of negotiation, and there are situations when aiming to reach a consensus is perfectly appropriate. What’s not appropriate is verbally sparring just to make a point.

When your goal is stopping at nothing to get others to agree, there’s plenty of talk, but very little tact. This approach to conversation, if you want to call it that, creates more barriers and division, often leaving participants further apart than when they first started.

The result is disagreements, hurt feelings, and wounded relationships. When did discourse begin to strike such discord?

Understanding why

Somewhere along the way, we became less interested in learning why people hold their views in favor of making them adopt our own opinions. This approach to conversation completely neglects people’s stories—the experiences that make each of us unique.

When you understand why people believe what they do, you honor their journey. You know where they’re coming from and how their background impacts their opinions. This critical context fosters respect, both for individuals and opinions.

Learning someone’s “why” can also help you comprehend why finding agreement might be difficult for them. You wouldn’t expect a European to regard football the same way an American would, right?

Curiosity about the perspectives of others demonstrates a genuine desire to understand who they are at the core. Sadly, genuine interest is often missing from today’s conversations, negotiations, and debates.

How did we get here?

I don’t need to spell out the source of this breakdown. The 24-hour news cycle, the rise of social media, and the perpetual access to communication offered by modern technology have played a massive part in the degradation of discourse.

In a vacuum, these societal developments aren’t bad. In reality, blindly believing media and technology help people establish meaningful connections is a problem. Modern media has united and empowered different factions to isolate themselves from anyone with an opposing view.

Talking to those with the same ideas and opinions as yours has always been more comfortable. You don’t have to work to find agreement, so we’re at a loss for how to respond when we encounter disagreement. As a result, you might feel disinterested in learning what someone else is saying, let alone why they believe what they’re saying.

No wonder more adults feel alone than ever. A recent Gallup poll found that 17% of American adults regularly feel lonely. Young adults under 30 are the loneliest—and spend more time on their phones than any other age group.

What if the goal of discourse was building understanding?

There is something we can do. Rather than trying to unite everyone on the same side, what if we gave the level of respect for other people’s ideas, opinions, and worldviews that we want for ourselves?

When you come to conversations with empathy and lead with curiosity, you open yourself up to truly see people for who they are. Humbly setting aside your certainty makes room for alternative ideas and perspectives and the possibility of finding common ground.

Shifting your motivation from changing a mind to understanding a perspective could be the way forward. You’ll truly see and hear those you interact with, ultimately leading to authentic, productive discourse.

Switching gears from talking at someone to discussing with them requires strength and vulnerability. Self-control is required to disagree without interrupting. Accepting and admitting you don’t know all the answers is helpful, too.

This is a conscious choice, though, because reserving judgment and leading with curiosity takes work. If we all deliberately decided to engage without rage, can you imagine how different the world might be?

You don’t have to agree with me about this or any other topic. All I’m asking is we work toward building collective decency to listen to each other so we can start to understand.


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