The Art of Disagreeing Well: Confessions of a Conflict Avoider

The Art of Disagreeing Well: Confessions of a Conflict Avoider

Erin Payseur

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

Now that I am at the conclusion of this series,

I have a confession to make...

I hate conflict.
I mean, I really dislike it.

My stomach turns into knots when I know I am going to disagree with someone. I am a peacemaker. I like peace. I want to pursue peace. I want us all to just get along.

But I also have strong opinions. I care about issues and about people. And I want to have a voice. As much as I often want to retreat in silence, I often feel called to speak up on behalf of my students, my friends, my beliefs.

And so, I often find myself caught in the tension between staying silent and keeping the peace or speaking up and bracing myself for potential conflict. I often see students caught there, too, and colleagues. All of us faced with a choice to make. Do we retreat into silence or do we speak up? The reality is that I don’t like having to choose. I want both. I want to keep the peace. And I want to have a voice. I believe most of us would choose both, if we thought we could.

For me, that is why controversy with civility is so importantso we don’t have to choose between love and conviction, between speaking up or walking away.

If we can find ways to have the tough conversations, even when we disagree, especially when we disagree, then that is a gift. For someone who loathes conflict, it is a valuable gift. It allows us to care for each other and to be authentically ourselves, to find our voice and to benefit from the voice of others.

It Takes Practice

This is hard work. There is nothing easy or natural about it, at least not for me. I am a conflict-avoider. So, I need to practice. We all need to practice.

The tools and frameworks that I’ve shared in this series are tools that can help us practice. We can practice dialogue with friends and colleagues that have different opinions than we do. We can practice listening to the other side of arguments and responding not with defensiveness but with curiosity and cultural humility. We can practice sharing our thoughts with those who may not agree with us trusting that we will be better for it (even if we do not change their minds).

This is hard work. But we can do it. With practice, we can learn to engage in conversations that matter to us, we can learn to find our voice AND to love others that see things differently. We can get better at it. We can do this.

What does this have to do with students and with our work?

In my institution’s mission statement, we espouse our commitment to “prepare students for worldwide leadership and service.” In our professional associations, we hear renewed calls for civic engagement as a primary role of higher education. On our campuses, we see students struggling to have civil conversations, struggling both to hear others and to be heard. This has everything to do with student affairs work, with our efforts around diversity & inclusion, with our efforts in tackling tough issues like sexual assault, with our efforts to introduce students to new horizons, new ways of thinking, new perspectives to consider. In preparing students to lead well, to listen well, to love well, we also need to prepare them to disagree well.

As I educate my students, I find that I continue to learn myself. And, I get more opportunities to practice.

Additional Resources

For more information on controversy with civility as it relates to student leadership, see:

Komives, Wagner, & Associates (2009). Leadership for a Better World: Understanding the Social Change Model of Leadership. National Clearinghouse for Leadership Programs.

For more information on civic learning & democratic engagement within student affairs, see:

NASPA (2013). 5 Things Student Affairs Professionals Can Do to Institutionalize Civic Engagement: A Special Report from NASPA's Research & Policy Institute.

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