Why “Agree to Disagree” Is Not An End, It’s A Beginning: 7 Reasons

reasons agree to disagree is not an end

It’s that familiar feeling of rising heart rate, that bolt of anxiety when someone we love or admire spouts ideas that we strongly oppose. Often these conversations end abruptly when one or both people exclaim in utter frustration, “Well, I guess we will have to agree to disagree.”

Who can blame us for this visceral reaction? Discussions about hard topics such as politics, religion, or social issues have ended decades-long friendships and eroded familial bonds. Talking about these things can feel like playing with fire.

The stakes don’t just feel high, they are high. These are not opinions about which breakfast cereal is best. These are our core values, our beliefs, and often our personal identities at stake. Most humans want the world to be better, but we often have drastically divergent visions of what that should look like.

It is in this space of sheer impasse that I ask you to linger.

Related: 5 Effective Steps For Conflict Reduction

Disagreement Is The Beginning

The trope “agree to disagree” is often the end of conversations. But what if it was the beginning? What if the point of the conversation is not to agree, but to have a conversation? What would happen if instead of trying to change or control each other, we focus on seeing and understanding each other?

I am a conflict transformation specialist. In my book and courses, I coach people facing difficult conversations to 1) resist using control, 2) embrace disagreement, and 3) focus on relationship- and community-building.

In other words, I recommend agreeing to disagree before the conversation starts. It can be incredibly helpful to begin a conversation with, “Yes, I will talk about this difficult subject with you. But how about we decide beforehand not to try to change each other’s minds?”

Here’s why this works.

7 Reasons Why “Agree to Disagree” Is Not an End, It’s a Beginning

1. Disagreement Is Healthy.

A society without disagreement is not a stable or free society. In order for our ideas to be strong, they need to be able to be challenged. When someone takes the time to disagree with us in a respectful way, we should work to welcome it as a gift and an opportunity to sharpen each other.

When we learn to be less threatened and more welcoming of disagreement, many times the quality of our conversations improves.

Related: 7 “Love-Saving” Words You Can Use For Handling Conflict

2. When We Debate To Win, Winning Becomes A Distracting Goal.

Unless we are arguing in a formal debate setting, it’s all too easy to focus on clap-backs and “gotcha” moments while losing sight of the bigger picture: mutual edification and growth. This is especially problematic when one party is naturally better or more experienced in debate skills than the other.

While debate has its place, it can be beneficial to set it aside.

healthy disagreements
Why “Agree to Disagree” Is Not An End, It’s A Beginning: 7 Reasons

3. It’s Important To Challenge Cultures Of Control.

When we attempt to change someone’s mind and they resist, it’s incredibly tempting to exert control and dominance. Control not only creates imbalances of power, but it fosters frustration and resentment (a phenomenon known as “reactance”) and erodes trust.

The stark truth of a free society is that we can’t control other people or force them to believe what we want. Such attempts are fundamentally unjust. Even if we think our ideas are righteous and flawless, employing control or manipulation dampens our cause, muddles our communication, and hurts chances we might have had at fair persuasion.

4. Changing Our Minds Is Hard And Uncomfortable.

According to cognitive dissonance theory, most of us experience tension and frustration when we are presented with new information that challenges our belief systems. Learning new information or a new point of view can set off a domino effect of other beliefs we hold that may also be challenged. Even our relationships can be challenged when we change our minds.

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Melody Stanford Martin

Melody Stanford Martin is a social ethicist and communications expert, author of Brave Talk: Building Resilient Relationships in the Face of Conflict (Broadleaf Books, 2020), Founder of Brave Talk Project, Founder & CEO of Cambridge Creative Group, and a regular contributor to Psychology Today. Melody’s work focuses on rhetorical innovation, courageous community engagement, and out-of-the-box thinking to solve social problems.View Author posts