We live in a social climate where engaging in some sort of argument is a cultural norm. Discourse is always stirring and our communities are often shaped by the extent to which we agree or disagree on certain issues. Generally speaking, agreeing with people tends to be a lot less stressful, but disagreements are NOT bad. In fact, we are all entitled to our own opinions and having different views can change the discussions of certain issues for the better. Disagreements themselves are not the problem. Things go awry when we handle them incorrectly. Of course, this begs a very important question: How can we disagree correctly or in a way that is productive? I’ll let you in on a secret. A lot of the tension surrounding many disagreements is already present before the argument starts. Arguments embody different perspectives from real people who are positioned in society in different ways. Oftentimes, the fiercest disagreements happen when some parties involved in the discussion have much more at stake in the issue than others. More agreeable disagreements can only truly occur when all parties involved feel they are equally affected by the conversation or there is a collective acknowledgement of the imbalance in stakes. Let’s look at a couple of examples to walk through what I mean.
To start, let's say a woman and her partner are deciding whether or not they should have a TV in their bedroom. At the outset at least, it seems that the stakes are about even for both people since they share the room. Social psychology experts like Dr. Susan Heitler recommend following the triple A (AAA) method to maintain civility as the discussion progresses and disagreements emerge. The three A’s stand for Agree, Augment, and Add. To be brief, the method boils down to finding some point of agreement, expressing one’s concern in relation to the agreed upon point, and incorporating a less contentious question into the mix, (similar to the “yes, and” rule in improv). In the conversation about having a TV in the bedroom, the couple can navigate through the triple A method agreeably because of the initial conditions of equal impact and mutual respect. Therefore, the final decision is more likely to be an effective compromise made in both parties’ best interests. The key to this disagreement being agreeable is establishing the shared stakes from the very beginning.
Now, let’s consider an example of a disagreement with imbalanced stakes: A woman and her male co-worker argue over whether or not the pervasive gender-wage gap is an issue that is still worth addressing. Frankly, this should not be controversial at all. The gender-wage gap is still a major problem, undercutting communal strides toward equity. But within the context of this distinct conversation, the tensions are high even before anyone speaks. The woman has more directly at stake in addressing the gender-wage gap than her male co-worker does. So, if the male co-worker were to advocate against drawing attention to the gender-wage gap, that indicates a genuine ignorance or an intentional dismissal of the stake imbalance. Again, this argument not only doesn’t happen in a vacuum, but it also has potential to do more harm to one party than the other from the outset. An inability or unwillingness to acknowledge the difference makes it very difficult to utilize the triple A method to disagree agreeably. The key to this disagreement being salvageable in any way lies in the recognition of the stake imbalance in the beginning of or during the discussion.
We at LILAS Wellness want to be sure that people have the space to productively disagree and still feel accepted in our community. With that being said, we hope that this comes with the willingness to truly listen to other perspectives and to recognize the power imbalances that make some discussions more contentious than others if ignored. Some people have more at stake than others when certain conversations are had and subsequently certain actions are taken. So, be mindful, be open to potential gaps in understanding that you might have, and bear the stakes in mind.