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Seeing beyond red: how to disagree better

From finding common ground to accepting when we are wrong, five ways to make an argument more constructive

From finding common ground to accepting when we are wrong, five ways to make an argument more constructive

1. Listen to other people’s views

It can feel impossible in the heat of the moment, but remembering there is usually more than one side to conflict can pay dividends: fresh knowledge and insight. If you can manage it, suspend your ego – and the planning of your next counterattack – and really tune in instead. Watch out for body language and the meaning behind their words.

Image: Andrea Tummons

2. Try to feel empathy

Kris De Meyer, a neuroscientist at King’s College London, notes that we often take a position and then entrench ourselves in it, meaning discussions end up as stand-offs or fights. It requires patience and the biting of tongues, but demonstrating empathy can help. Ask yourself: why do they think what they think? It might even change your mind.

Image: Kelly Sikkema

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3. Look for common ground

“If we don’t agree on any basic values then we really can’t engage in any kind of discussion,” says Clare Chambers, lecturer of political philosophy at Jesus College Cambridge. “The more precise we can be about what we’re disagreeing about and what we’re agreeing about, the better our debate is going to be,” she recommends.

Image: Slava Bowman

4. Step out of your comfort zone

Ouch. Though we usually try to escape feeling it as soon as possible, discomfort can be a sign that a discussion or debate has constructive potential. The places where we feel uncomfortable are often where perspectives shift, where we can think more creatively and where we are able to be open to fresh ideas.

Image: Andrej Lisakov

5. Accept when you’re wrong

Part of arguing is accepting that we will sometimes be wrong. Ideally, we should be willing to move on if we’ve lost an argument. Managing that demonstrates real courage and maturity. And the advice is – if possible – not to feel bad or embarrassed that you were wrong. Instead, reframe it as excitement: at the chance to learn and improve.

Image: Sinziana Susa

Adapted from How to Disagree: A Beginner’s Guide to Having Better Arguments, a Radio 4 programme by Timandra Harkness