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How to Disagree ... Without Being Disagreeable

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a lifelong advocate for women's rights, LGBTQ+ rights, and equality for all died this week.

Amid the outpouring of grief at the loss of this iconic woman, I heard Anne Miner say that she learned two valuable lessons from Justice Ginsburg:

1. To pursue what she cared about, to fight when necessary, and to " so in a manner that would lead others to join you," and

2. To "disagree without being disagreeable," which is mandatory when you fight for change.

Anne is the eldest of six children raised by a strict father, with immovable positions, and a mother who encouraged her to make her father believe that Anne's ideas were his ideas.

Anne did not find her mother's approach at all palatable and discovered her own strategies when dealing with her father and his rigidity.

First of all, she learned that "no" could mean:

Not right now: your timing is bad, and the listener doesn't want to put in the time and energy to think about what you want, so the safe thing to say right now is "no."

You haven't persuaded me to say "yes": you need a more convincing argument.

Not ever: what you are asking for is never going to fly. Don't ask again.

Anne learned to choose her timing carefully (e.g., don't ask when he has just come in the door before he has eaten), to be prepared with facts, figures (i.e., evidence) to demonstrate that her request is reasonable, and to avoid those situations where you are sure to lose.

What she did NOT learn was how to fight "... in a manner that would lead others to join you." Anne told me that she would find herself outraged over some injustice and want to take immediate action without a thoughtful plan. She would charge ahead, a solo crusader with no backup.

Without hesitation, she would take the lead on controversial issues (i.e., fighting the outdated high school dress code), and often she would "win," but what she didn't have was a loyal following. For young Anne, her way was the best, and she did not readily accept input from others; like her father, she was quick to dismiss the ideas that others presented.

When Anne realized that she needed to change if she wanted others to follow and help fight the injustices of the world, she deliberately set about finding new ways of leading.

She found a method for disagreeing without being disagreeable - the "three A's":

  • Acknowledge: Validate the other person's comments, suggestions, ideas. In order for you to do this, first, you have to listen carefully and understand what they are saying. Then respond with something like, "I hear what you are saying" or "I understand what you are suggesting."

  • Agee: Agree with what you can accept. For example, you might say, "I agree that there might be a better way to do ____" or "I agree that our previous efforts have not produced the results we were hoping for."

  • And: Notice that the transition is "and," NOT "but." If you say "but," you erase everything that you said before. If you say "and," you are building on your previous acknowledgment and agreement. "And" allows you to transition into your concern or objection agreeably. For example, "And, I would like to see additional analysis before we proceed," or "And, I have observed this approach elsewhere; unfortunately, it did not deliver the results hoped for, so I would not be in favor of trying it here."

"That sounds pretty easy," I said to Anne.

She smiled and acknowledged, "I can see how it sounds easy. Of course, I agree that it should be easy. And, I wish I had found it so. Building a new habit that genuinely acknowledges and appreciates the thoughts of others takes a concentrated effort. So often, it would be easier and more practical to disagree in a disagreeable way, by saying, "That won't work, and here's why!"

Anne summed up with this comment

"People will more readily follow you when they feel valued, appreciated, and encouraged to contribute. Learning to disagree without being disagreeable is an art! The more you practice, the better you'll get! "

As a tribute to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I hope you will all join me in practicing the art of "Disagreeing without being Disagreeable"!


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