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Does Agreeing-to-disagree Work? posted Oct 5, 2018


How often when you’re in disagreement with someone- a spouse, a friend, a colleague or boss, do you say to each other “We have different opinions on this matter. Let’s just agree to disagree and move on”? I don’t know about you, but for me, I get into these no-argument stalemate positions often, especially with someone who is on the “other side of the aisle” from me regarding a related to a political, religious or social issue.

I was listening to the audiobook by Brene Brown yesterday, Braving the Wilderness, and was intrigued by an interview she conducted with Professor Michelle Buck at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University who teaches a course on conflict transformation. As the relationship coach, I am working to help clients resolve conflict in their marriages, the interview questions and answers intrigued me and have given me new insight on how to help my clients foster closer connections with their partners when they disagree on important issues. I was so moved by the interview that I finished listening with a knowing that conflict transformation (versus, and very different from, conflict resolution), is what will end and transform not only the divisiveness we are experiencing in the world today but that we experience day to day with our partners.

Here are the interview questions and answers and my takeaways at the end.

Q: What do you think about agreeing-to-disagree and ending the conversation on that note?

A: People silence themselves or agree to disagree without fully exploring the actual nature of the disagreement for the sake of protecting a relationship and maintaining the connection. But when we avoid conversations and never fully learn about how the person feels about the issues, we sometimes make assumptions that not only perpetuate but deepen misunderstandings, and this can generate resentment. The key is to learn how to navigate differences in opinion and have a deep mutual understanding.

Q: If we decide to stay in the conversation, how do we stay civil with each other?

A: Explicitly address the underlying intentions. Think about what the conversation is about and then what is it REALLY about. The intention is the deepest level reason why the topic is so important to the person. We have to understand what is truly important to us and why this topic is so important to the other person as well. You want to understand each other’s motives and interests more closely.

Q: What’s the solution when I tear people down?  I oppose people rather than listen, which allow me to be right.

A: If you want to transform a disagreement into an opportunity for connection, you need to distinguish between the past, present, and future. When you’re in the past, it’s easy to fall into a “she said, he said” back and forth argument. Focusing on what did or didn’t happen in the past or what past event led to the current disagreement leads to more disconnection.  A critical first step is to shift the conversation to where are we now. And, the most important turning point comes when we focus on the future. What are we trying to accomplish, what do we want for the future? What do we want our relationship to be going forward? What do we need to do, even if we disagree, to create that future? We can identify agreement about a shared future we want together.

Q: What’s the difference between conflict transformation and resolution?

A: Resolution suggests going back to a previous state of affairs and has a connotation that there may be a winner or a loser. How will this disagreement be resolved? Whose solution will be selected as the better one? Transformation suggests creatively navigating the conversation landscape about different opinions.  At a minimum, we learn more about each other than before.  Ideally, we discover possibilities that may not have been considered before. It’s about creating a deeper understanding and requires perspective-taking.  As a result, it enables deeper connection, whether or not there is agreement. 

Q: I prepare my argument in my head while someone is talking to me.  I want to be prepared.  Yet, it feels terrible when it happens to me. How can I slow things down in the midst of conflict?

A: One of the most critical steps is to listen with a desire to learn more about the other person’s perspective. One of the most courageous things to say in an uncomfortable conversation is “tell me more.” Exactly when we want to turn away or counter, we have the opportunity to ask what we need to know to fully understand the other person’s perspective. “Help me understand why this is so important to you.”  Or, “Help me understand why you don’t agree with this particular idea.” Then, once you ask this, you have to listen, really listen.  Listen to understand in the same way you want to be understood.


My first takeaway is that we need to constantly be in a state of curiosity. If we’re in conflict with our partner, stay curious and ask him or her to explain fully their point of view so that we can fully learn about how they feel about the issue we’re in disagreement about. Learning more about our partner’s perspective and the intention behind their belief creates deeper understanding between the two of us, which allows us to discover new and different ways to think about the issue.

And my second takeaway is to focus on the present and the future, NOT the past. The past is the past and what happened before to bring about a disagreement is what happened before. Instead, we can focus on where we are right now and where we want to be, how we want to grow with each other. What do we want for our marriage, our partnership, our life together? Who do we want to be together? What are we wanting to create for ourselves? What we focus on is where our energy flows. If we focus on what we want, our energy and efforts will go more toward what we want.

If these ideas resonate with you, please comment below this article and let me know how conflict transformation can play out in your life and in your relationship with your significant other. What can you do, or are you doing right now, to stand up in the face of disagreement and create more connection with your partner?

If you would like to discuss any disagreements or issues you are having in your relationship with your partner, I encourage you to schedule a free discovery call session with me to discuss. I'm all ears! Here's my calendar link to schedule a one-hour session:

On the call, we'll talk about your concerns and come up with a plan to help you transform your conflicts with your partner and create a joyful and happy relationship going forward. I look forward to talking with you!

2120 PointsGold

Kimberly Riley

/ Midlife Transition and Relationship Coach

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