How to Productively Disagree on Tough Topics

Instead of avoiding divisive issues, learn how to have thoughtful conversations that build mutual understanding and respect.

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Neil Webb/theispot.com

 

Conversations about identity, diversity, and justice are some of the thorniest human interactions of our time. Consider Uber’s head of diversity, who hosted a workplace event titled “Don’t Call Me Karen” to highlight the “spectrum of the American White woman’s experience” and foster an “open and honest conversation about race.” Following backlash from employees of color, she was placed on a leave of absence.1

Or consider Stanford Law School’s associate dean for diversity, who tried to “de-escalate” student protests during a speech by conservative judge Kyle Duncan. The dean tried to placate the students, who were angered by the judge’s anti-LGBTQ+ views, while giving the judge the space to finish his talk. But her intervention led to a public furor due to a perception that she had prioritized students’ feelings over the judge’s right to free speech. She, too, was placed on leave.2

If these conversations stymie senior diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) professionals, what hope do ordinary leaders have? More than you might think.

We lead a research center at the New York University School of Law dedicated to issues of diversity, inclusion, and belonging. Together and separately, we’ve taught tens of thousands of individuals from all walks of life to have more meaningful and effective conversations across their differences. We focus our efforts on coaching people in positions of power because they have the greatest opportunity to transform the dynamics of these interactions — to foster empathy instead of provoking fear and division.

While the people we coach struggle with many types of identity conversations, disagreements are often the most agonizing. It’s relatively easy to participate in identity conversations when you and the other person are aligned. When you disagree, you’re likely to be flooded with angst and self-doubt. You might wonder: Am I as enlightened as I thought I was? Will people feel hurt or betrayed by me?

You might be tempted to respond to such angst by capitulating to whatever your conversation partner says. Yet that approach is often not desirable, because it compromises your dignity and authenticity. We believe it’s still possible to disagree on identity issues, even in today’s polarized and overheated political climate. The key is to do it respectfully. Here’s how.

Locate the Conversation on the Controversy Scale

We’re both in same-sex relationships — Kenji married his husband in 2009, and David married his in 2014 — and we’ve participated in debates over same-sex marriage in many forums. We have never enjoyed these discussions, but we’ve found one feature of them uniquely awful: Our opponents have rarely acknowledged what the debate means to us or to other LGBTQ+ people.

In a prominent work opposing marriage equality, the authors insisted that people can reject same-sex marriage “without denigrating same-sex-attracted people, or ignoring their needs.”3 They’ve taken the same position in live conversations. In a televised debate about same-sex marriage, the moderator asked one of the authors, Ryan Anderson, to explain to financial adviser Suze Orman, a lesbian, “what’s wrong with her.” “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with you,” Anderson told Orman. “The question is, what is marriage? I think that marriage is intrinsically … a union of a man and a woman.”4

Although it sounded diplomatic, this response didn’t recognize that from many gay people’s perspectives, Anderson’s opposition to same-sex marriage logically meant he thought Orman was a second-class citizen. Yet in our myriad conversations on this topic, we can count on one hand the number of times the opposing side recognized that we might experience their view as a strike at our basic humanity. That approach didn’t require them to change their opinion. It just required them to acknowledge how that opinion might land on the other side.

In part due to that frustration, we developed a controversy scale that plots the subjects of disagreement along a straight line. On the left are the safest subjects, where disagreement is expected or even celebrated. On the right are the most controversial subjects, where the conversation is most likely to turn ugly.

Disagreements over personal tastes are usually warm and good-natured. When friends mock us for our love of trashy TV shows, those disagreements can strengthen rather than weaken the relationship. Disagreeing over facts is also relatively comfortable, provided it really is a debate about facts (such as who, what, when, where, or how) rather than a thinly veiled debate over values (framed as “alternative facts” or “fake news”). The real danger comes when the topic drifts further to the right on the controversy scale. The most intense conversations are those in which one or both sides feel that their equal humanity has been put into question.

Imagine you’re a Latine proponent of a workplace diversity and inclusion initiative, and you’re debating a non-Latine colleague who opposes the program. We think you’ll find it uncomfortable but manageable to discuss whether the initiative has succeeded in advancing Latine representation in the workplace (facts). You’ll find it harder to debate whether diversity considerations should be factored into promotion decisions (policies). And you’ll find it excruciating to debate psychologist Richard Herrnstein and political scientist Charles Murray’s infamous hypothesis that IQs differ among racial and ethnic groups (equal humanity).5

The trouble with identity disagreements is that more privileged conversation partners almost always locate the issue at different positions on the controversy scale than less privileged ones do. If you think your company focuses too much on anti-racism, you might see the dispute as a policy debate over how the organization should prioritize different aspects of its mission. Your conversation partner, an Asian American colleague, might think you’re trivializing her sense of belonging at the company. She’s the one, after all, who has to contend with anti-Asian bias in the workplace. You locate the issue in the middle of the controversy scale at “policies.” She locates it at the rightward extreme of “equal humanity.”

In identity disagreements, more privileged conversation partners almost always locate the issue at different positions on the controversy scale than less privileged ones do.

You might find that after you recognize where the other person is on the controversy scale, you’ll reassess the nature of the disagreement, moving the issue closer to where they’ve positioned it. But you might not, and we’re not pushing you to do so. All we ask is that you explicitly acknowledge your counterpart’s position. At the outset of the conversation, you might say something like, “To me this is a policy debate, but I see how it could be deeply personal for you, and I’ll do my best to respect that reality when sharing my views.” There might also be times during or after a conversation where you realize you treated the topic as a purely intellectual exercise and need to recognize the impact the discussion might have had on the other person: “I’ve been bringing policy arguments to the table, but can I ask how you’ve been experiencing this discussion as someone whose life might be more directly affected by this issue?”

We think you’ll be shocked at how much acknowledging your relative subject positions can take the hurt or heat out of a disagreement. This holds true even if those positions seem obvious to both parties. Often, what’s needed is not more knowledge but more acknowledgment of shared knowledge.

Find Uncommon Commonalities

In the 1987 movie Predator, the character of Dutch (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) and the character of Dillon (Carl Weathers) greet each other with what’s come to be known as an epic handshake. “Dillon, you son of a bitch,” Dutch says as they walk up to each other and clasp their hands together with their hulking arms in a V-shape like they’re about to arm-wrestle. They refuse to let go of each other’s hand. Then the handshake turns into an actual arm-wrestling match. It’s an almost parodic display of over-the-top masculinity.

The scene might have been forgotten but for a viral meme. When social media users want to show two seemingly unrelated people, groups, or concepts that share a surprising commonality, they post a picture of Dutch and Dillon shaking hands. They put one label over Dutch’s arm, another over Dillon’s arm, and the commonality in the middle. In one instance, revenge and ice cream shake hands over the phrase “best served cold.” The epic handshake has also spawned other attempts at highlighting unpredictable overlaps using Venn diagrams. We learn that bank robbers, DJs, and preachers share “put your hands up.” These images help us see the handshake hidden in each arm-wrestling match.

This capability is critical, and cultivating it is harder than it looks. It’s conventional wisdom that offering points of agreement is an effective strategy when disagreeing with someone. But as philosopher Daniel Dennett has noted, it’s particularly helpful to find points that “are not matters of general or widespread agreement.”6 The idea is to find uncommon commonalities that surprise you out of your defaults. Too often, people settle for the bland ones that feel like empty gestures. It’s like posting the bank robbers, DJs, and preachers meme and making the commonality “occupations.”

Instead, try to find uncommon commonalities that can liberate you as well as your conversation partner and help make even the most inflammatory of subjects easier to discuss. In recent years, hordes of concerned parents have streamed into usually sleepy town hall meetings to express outrage over the conversations about race being held in their children’s classrooms. One such parent is Bart Glasgow (no relation to David), a conservative evangelical Christian White man from Canton, Georgia, who spoke up at a school board meeting to oppose the hiring of a DEI administrator in his local district.

Try to find uncommon commonalities that can liberate you as well as your conversation partner and help make even the most inflammatory of subjects easier to discuss.

Bart and his wife, Coley, decided to speak with four experts on the subject of race. One was Carol Anderson, a professor and chair of African American studies at Emory University and author of several books, including White Rage. On the surface, Anderson and the Glasgows have little in common. Yet in their hour-long conversation, both sides made considerable effort to find points of connection.7 Bart Glasgow noted that he wrote his senior college thesis on the topic of civil disobedience, examining figures like Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. “I think what Dr. King did was amazing,” he said. “To take that biblical principle of turning the other cheek and to show love when hate’s being shown to you.” Anderson noted that her father was “career military” and described being raised in the church and in a “God-fearing” community. They all bonded over their experience of growing up with the World Book Encyclopedia in their homes and with parents who would take them “to the woodshed.” They continued by sharing experiences of being in the minority in an educational setting. Anderson, who is Black, talked about being bussed to a majority-White high school. Coley Glasgow, who is White, shared that she completed her higher education at two historically Black colleges.

This exploration of common ground paid dividends. As the conversation continued, they aired disagreements. Bart Glasgow argued against an emphasis on systemic racism; Anderson disagreed. Later, Bart advocated for school vouchers that would allow parents to move their children out of underperforming local schools, and again Anderson disagreed. Yet these disagreements were remarkably civil. When the conversation concluded, Bart said to Anderson, “I could talk to you for hours. I really could.” Anderson replied, “Thank you so much for being here and asking these wonderful questions and engaging in this great conversation. Thank you. I love it.”

The next time you are confronted with a disagreement, try asking yourself what you have in common with your conversation partner that might surprise them. If you’re debating same-sex marriage, you might point out that many people — straight and gay — think marriage is an antiquated institution. So, despite your differences, you both believe in the importance of marriage as an institution. Finding those uncommon commonalities requires a bit of ingenuity, and it might feel taxing at times. But the payoff is big: Finding them can jolt both of you out of the reflexive and unconscious sense that you are adversaries in the conversation.

Show Your Work

Shortly after we launched the Meltzer Center for Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging, we received an unnerving email from a respected colleague. She asked us to use our platform as diversity and inclusion scholars to advocate for people who don’t fully vaccinate themselves or their children. In her view, excluding people from schools and workplaces for defying vaccine mandates had “troubling” implications for the values of diversity, inclusion, and belonging. She invited us to discuss the issue with her so it could be addressed university-wide.

We received this request before the COVID-19 pandemic turned vaccines into a white-hot issue. Even so, we knew this conversation might be difficult. We passionately disagreed with her perspective, but we feared that neither acknowledging her position on the controversy scale nor offering an epic handshake would suffice.

So we shared our reasoning in depth. We stated politely but firmly that we didn’t believe opposition to vaccines fit within the scope of our center’s work. We explained that the center’s primary function was to address bias against marginalized social groups, like people of color or women. We acknowledged that some groups, like religious minorities, were mistreated because of their beliefs rather than because of their physical characteristics. But particularly as a newly launched center, we weren’t eager to stretch the definition of a marginalized group to people defined by their views on a single issue. We also noted that the topic of vaccine hesitancy raised complicated medical, ethical, and public health questions outside our expertise.

We had no illusions that this approach would change our colleague’s mind. But it showed we’d given her viewpoint real consideration, and it also offered her an opportunity to point out where we might be wrong. She thanked us for the thoughtfulness of our response, noted that she completely understood our position, and invited us to participate in an event on a separate topic.

Our approach to our colleague’s inquiry was an example of showing your work — that is, explaining a disagreement in as much detail as possible to demonstrate to the other person that you’ve thought carefully about the subject. The advice to highlight points of disagreement might seem out of step with our previous emphasis on finding common ground. But you can and should do both — look for points of agreement and share points of disagreement in detail. Paint a complete picture of the facts and values on which you’re basing your disagreement, any research and conversations that have informed your current thinking, and any remaining doubts or uncertainties you hold. Over your conversation partner’s lifetime, they’ve probably encountered many people who have reflexively opposed their views based on shoddy or incomplete work. Showing the effort you’ve made will distinguish you from those opponents. It will help them respond to you rather than to all those voices from their past.

A word of caution: When showing your work, don’t offer a slapdash summary of the opposing argument before immediately dismissing it. Writer Moira Weigel has likened this mistake to “the first sentence of the last paragraph” of a high school essay: “I have thought of the other side already. Do not accuse me of not having thought of the other side!”8 Rather than taking that cursory approach, take the time to research and understand the opposing view, and then share that understanding generously before you explain why you continue to see the issue differently. Show your work to show your respect.

Manage Expectations

Many people have a low tolerance for disagreement in general. If a contentious identity issue comes up at a conference room table, they immediately change the subject. If they have an argument with someone, they replay the conversation in their mind for weeks. David, unfortunately, is one such person. He’ll run away from voicing a disagreement to avoid conflict, then stew alone in frustration that the other person doesn’t agree with him. For whatever reason, he seems to have an unrealistic expectation that identity conversations should always end in a group hug.

People sometimes ask us anguished questions along these lines: “I’m an atheist and staunch liberal, but a colleague on my team at work is a conservative evangelical Christian. How can we work together despite our disagreements?” Our answer: Lower your expectations. We admit this advice probably won’t make its way onto a motivational poster. But we think it’s completely appropriate to scale the intensity of the passion you bring into the disagreement to the intensity of the relationship.

As with any dispute on a heavy subject, identity conflicts often aren’t neatly resolved in one encounter.

A cartoon by Randall Munroe shows a stick figure furiously tapping away at a computer keyboard while a voice from the other room calls out, “Are you coming to bed?” The stick figure responds, “I can’t. This is important. Someone is wrong on the internet.”9 Most people have enough perspective not to care fiercely about disagreements with random internet trolls. But it’s worth cultivating that healthy instinct in other situations, too. Each of us would struggle if we had a major disagreement with our spouse about issues of identity. Nevertheless, we’ve both supervised and advanced the careers of students who disagree with us, because the teacher-student relationship is less intense than the marital one. The same goes for colleagues, neighbors, and acquaintances. When the relationship isn’t as close, the need for agreement should be lower.

You can also manage your expectations of what can be achieved in a single conversation. As with any dispute over a heavy subject, identity conflicts often aren’t neatly resolved in one encounter. The first conversation might go poorly, but the second might go better and the third better still. You might need to take multiple off-ramps and on-ramps to and from a conversation before you make progress.


When people engage in conversations about identity, diversity, and justice with someone who has opposing views, we encourage them to practice the four strategies we’ve described:

  • Locate the conversation on the controversy scale. To you, the conversation might be a factual or policy debate, but to the other person, it might be a debate over their equal humanity.
  • Find uncommon commonalities — points of agreement that are not matters of widespread agreement.
  • Show your work on the remaining disagreements to demonstrate that you’ve thought carefully about the subject.
  • Manage your expectations. Scale the intensity with which you care about the disagreement to the intensity of the relationship.

Despite the examples we’ve shared, you might think we’re being unrealistic about your ability to disagree agreeably on matters of identity by practicing these strategies. It’s true that they can’t ensure positive outcomes in all conversations. But we’re confident that you’ll see an immediate improvement in the quality of your conversations if you follow these guidelines.

Sometimes, of course, the rift between you and the other person will be too wide. Sometimes an attempt at conversation will end without a resolution. Sometimes the relationship itself will end. As awful as that outcome can feel, it’s sometimes a necessary one. We’re not here to guarantee that every disagreement will end happily. Rather, we want to help you ensure that a divide is truly unbridgeable before you walk away from it.

Other times, of course, you might be surprised in a positive way. Few, if any, meaningful relationships are devoid of conflict. When handled well, moments of tension can deepen a bond. Rather than nodding along insincerely or offering fake opinions, sharing a thoughtful difference of opinion can show the other person that you value them enough to be honest with them. Moreover, by modeling how to productively disagree, you can set the tone for how others throughout your organization can navigate today’s thorniest conversations.

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References

1. K. Browning, “Uber’s Diversity Chief Put on Leave After Complaints of Insensitivity,” The New York Times, May 21, 2023, www.nytimes.com.

2. V. Patel, “At Stanford Law School, the Dean Takes a Stand for Free Speech. Will It Work?” The New York Times, April 9, 2023, www.nytimes.com.

3. S. Girgis, R. Anderson, and R. George, “What Is Marriage?: Man and Woman: A Defense” (New York: Encounter Books, 2012).

4.Orman and Anderson on Same-Sex Marriage,” filmed March 27, 2013, at CNN, Atlanta, video, 3:21, www.cnn.com.

5. R. Herrnstein and C. Murray, “The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life” (New York: Free Press, 1994).

6. D.C. Dennett, “Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking” (New York: W.W. Norton, 2013).

7.Parents Skeptical of Critical Race Theory Talk to Experts: Drawing Conclusions Part 1,” Oct. 4, 2021, at Emory University, Atlanta, video, 1:00:01, www.youtube.com.

8. D. Denvir and M. Weigel, “Reasonable Men Calming You Down With Moira Weigel,” Oct. 13, 2018, in “The Dig,” podcast, 46:06, https://thedigradio.com.

9. R. Munroe, “Duty Calls,” XKCD, web comic, accessed Aug. 25, 2023, https://xkcd.com.

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Comment (1)
Stuart Roehrl
A well-written article - excellent recommendations and guidance.  I read this with great care and interest,  Very useful application in business and organizational relations.
Stuart Roehrl