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‘Agreeing to Disagree’ Is the End of Truly Listening to Each Other

For all we make about our disagreements with each other, we are bound to have more in agreement by the nature of conservation.

When conversation hits a road bump, participants often turn toward a way of agreeing with each other without actually having to agree. It’s the famous “let’s agree to disagree” line. In my own life, the proposal tends to come up in two specific cases:

1. A way to move past a superficial disagreement (someone is quibbling and they think it’s cute) to get closer to the heart of what we’re talking about. 

2. A socially acceptable way to end a conversation that is beginning to get heated — without saying something like “You’re a jerk. How could you think that?”

In the first situation, I’m thankful to have the phrase. In the second, I’m grateful for the peace it delivers, but am ultimately left with an empty feeling, as though I haven’t properly understood the other person, or that they haven’t adequately listened to my point of view.

David Aldridge, lecturer in philosophy of education at Oxford Brooks University, UK, makes some astute observations about the nature of agreement and disagreement at the Oxford Practical Ethics Blog.

For all we make about our disagreements with each other, we are bound to have more in agreement by the nature of conversation:

“There is a sense in which we must agree to disagree — that is, we must agree in order to disagree. We need to converge sufficiently in our understanding of some matter of importance for an interesting sort of disagreement to emerge, and we each need to have some interest or motivation to get to the truth of things. On the other hand, we each need to disagree in order for the dialogue to continue.”

Aldridge’s most interesting argument has to do with the second point mentioned above, that time when agreeing to disagree ends the conversation. He claims that we agree to disagree, and therefore end the conversation, when we are most ready to learn from the other conversant:

“We do our interlocutor no favours by avoiding conversation because we have begun to talk about the very things that we care deeply about. … It is to assert that we are no longer prepared to be transformed by our interlocutor’s differing view on the truth, and that we are no longer therefore prepared to learn from their difference.”

In this incredible lecture, Harvard linguist Steven Pinker examines the ways in which our language belies our true thoughts, which we sometimes have difficulty saying outright for very valid social reasons:

Photo credit: Getty Images / futurewalk


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