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rhetorical strategies

The Best Way To Disagree

I disagree.

I disagree.

I find that I often disagree with people. It’s not that I’m a bad person or that I have evil intentions. I just have a specific and somewhat idiosyncratic way of looking at the world that doesn’t always fit with other people’s views. There’s certainly nothing wrong with being out of step with the world. There are, however, good reasons to consider how to deal with it.

When I was younger and snarkier, I dealt with it by being competitive. I focused on winning. I’m pretty good with words and I could often come up with a snappy comeback or putdown. I could be sarcastic and snide. I could put the other person in his place. If I left the other person speechless, so much the better. That just proved that I had won the encounter. I felt superior.

Now that I’m a bit older, I realize that it’s more important to win over than to win. When I sarcastically put someone down, I doubt that I won many hearts and minds. Instead of winning people over, I pushed them away. Humiliating another person may feel good but it doesn’t do good.

I’ve learned that the best way to disagree is to begin by agreeing. You start by finding some point of agreement with the other person’s position. It may be small or large, but it allows you to start by validating what the other person has said. You say – metaphorically or literally – “Yes, I’ve heard you. I understand your position.” The other person feels affirmed and recognized.

Then you change the frame, shift the focus, or alter the timeline. Here are some general-purpose ways to do just that:

  • Alter the timeline – “I agree that your suggestion would be helpful in the short run. But I worry that the long-term effects would be very detrimental. Here’s why…” (Of course, you can flip long-term and short-term if that suits your argument).
  • Agree conceptually then shift to the literal or practical aspects of the issue – “I think you’re right. A successful businessman should make a good president. I would just feel better if we had an example of that actually happening.”
  • Agree with your interlocutor’s frame of reference and then change the frame. Often, you’ll want to broaden the frame, like this: “I certainly agree that this would help first graders. But I’m concerned about all primary school students. How can we determine if this will help all students, not just beginners?” On other occasions, you may want to narrow the frame, like this: “I agree that this tax change will be good for most companies in our industry. But our company is an exception because of the way we account for our overseas profits.”

The general technique is known as concession-and-shift. It’s been in use at least since the days of Aristotle and his rhetorical colleagues. The idea is simple: start on a positive note rather than a negative note. Agree before disagreeing. If your interlocutor senses that you’re agreeable and reasonable, she’ll be much more likely to listen to your side of the argument. That’s exactly what you want.

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