The Art of Disagreeing Well: Avoiding the Retreat Into Silence

The Art of Disagreeing Well: Avoiding the Retreat Into Silence

Erin Payseur

Associate Director, Civic Learning Initiatives, Office of Community Engagement & Service, Baylor University

Controversy with Civility Series

Part 2: Listening & Loving the Other

In part two of this series, we are focusing on learning to listen and love the other. If we are truly going to disagree well, if we want to approach controversy with civility, then we must start with our own attitude and perspective. We must be willing to listen to each other, to value each other, even when we do not agree with each other. How do we do that? We have been looking at three ways that we can cultivate the right heart for this work and for others:

In my last post, I discussed the importance of understanding our common values. This week, we will discuss how to avoid the retreat into silence.

When we anticipate controversy, we sometimes tend to avoid the conversation altogether, leaving others to hash out decisions or make plans. Or when controversy arises in the middle of a conversation, we tend to withdraw and opt out of further dialogue. Whether we are the ones retreating into silence, or whether we see others retreating from the conversation, we need to know it’s happening, and we need to find ways to reengage. Why? Here are several reasons:

  • We benefit from diverse perspectives & collective wisdom.
  • As a profession, we are committed to inclusivity. Every student & every voice matters.
  • Without voices, we may miss valuable insight.
  • Without voices, we may not have buy-in from key stakeholders.

The reality is, though, even when we see the legitimate value in hearing other voices, many of us are conflict avoiders. We see this on a larger scale by tuning out of politics. In the face of increasingly polarized and politicized issues, we would rather stay silent than risk entering a potentially reactive and emotional conflict, so we avoid important issues and conversations, relinquishing our voice at the table. Studies have shown we increasingly choose to follow, like, listen to voices with which we agree and silence or turn-off the voices that may disagree with us or offer a different perspective.

It is counter-intuitive to engage voices with which we disagree, particularly to seek out those voices. But avoiding the retreat into silence is important to all of us.

In community problem-solving, it is essential that we develop solutions that work for the community as a whole, all of us, not just some of us, or those like us. In decision-making, silent voices can be the result of marginalization, and inclusion of voices as a primary vehicle for building (or rebuilding) agency and efficacy. And in addressing complicated social issues, we need more brains, more perspectives, more voices so that we can develop collective wisdom and make decisions based on sound judgment. When voices are absent, when particular perspectives are not considered, we all suffer. We may miss important information to guide our decision, or we may lack the buy-in to implement our proposed solutions, or we may fall victim to our own biases and false assumptions.

How, then, do we avoid the retreat into silence?

It can begin on a personal level in choosing to engage those of differing viewpoints or perspectives. It can be as simple as having a respectful conversation with someone who holds a different position or prefers a different political candidate than you. For example, several weeks ago I posted a political article on Facebook. I don’t often get political, but it was a thoughtful piece I wanted to share. A friend posted a comment respectfully questioning the perspective of the article. I had two choices in thinking about how I could respond: I could engage him, as someone with whom I know I disagree, or I could ignore him, in effect silencing his voice and avoiding the unpleasantness. Ignoring him is by far the safest and easiest choice, especially in a public space like Facebook, a choice I have often made. This time, though, I chose a different course. I thanked him for sharing. A couple of days later, prompted by his critique, I read a different article, one that spoke to some of his concerns. I decided to post it, another well-written thoughtful piece, from a very different perspective. This time, I invited his comments, asking if it captured his thoughts. It led to a productive conversation and a new connection with my friend, who perhaps felt more heard and understood as a result.

On a larger level, we need to be intentional about who we invite to join in conversations and to ask whose voice is missing from the table. In a NASPA webinar last year, student life professionals discussing the Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage lamented the lack of voices at the table from the opposing view. They realized they were not hearing voices representing students and staff who may be struggling with the decision and, as a result, did not know how to engage these students and staff well. The moderator wisely asked for ideas about how to intentionally engage these members in respectful dialogue and to proactively work to relieve potential tensions on respective campuses.

Here are some questions we can ask ourselves to avoid missing silent voices:

  • Who are the stakeholders in this decision? Who will be impacted by it? Whose buy-in do we need to move forward?
  • What perspectives have we heard? Are there other perspectives that are missing or not represented? • Does anyone disagree or see it from a different perspective? (Sometimes just asking empowers otherwise silent voices to speak up?)
  • Are we creating space for other opinions? Are people free to share their perspectives?
  • Who may disagree with me (or us)? What is important to them? What values are informing their perspective? (If we don’t know, let’s ask.)

As we wrap up part two of this series, we have now looked at several ways to cultivate the right heart and attitude for this work. Disagreeing well means caring about others at the table, listening and loving those who have different perspectives and different opinions than our own. Next time, we’ll move on to part three of this series: leading with moral courage and conviction. We’ll look at controversy with civility as a vehicle for social change and collective efficacy; we’ll examine when controversy with civility breaks down; and we’ll wrap up the series with a showcase of controversy with civility at work and some final reflections. Stay tuned!

Click here to see all posts in the Civility Series.

About the Author: Erin Payseur is the Associate Director of Civic Learning Initiatives at Baylor University. She has ten years of experience in civic engagement and higher education. As part of the Office of Community Engagement & Service, she develops sustainable frameworks for co-curricular service & social justice initiatives to guide students in considering their roles as leaders and citizens. She currently serves as the institutional contact for the NASPA Civic Learning & Democratic Engagement Lead Initiative. She has authored several articles and presented nationally on civic engagement, service, and leadership. In addition to her civic engagement work, she also serves as adjunct faculty for the leadership minor. She has a B.A. degree in Religion/ Philosophy from Presbyterian College and a M.Ed. in Higher Education & Student Affairs from the University of South Carolina.

Erin Payseur

Associate Director, Civic Learning Initiatives, Office of Community Engagement & Service, Baylor University