The Art of Disagreeing Well: Listening & Loving the Other

The Art of Disagreeing Well: Listening & Loving the Other

Erin Payseur

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

Controversy with Civility Series

Part 2: Listening & Loving the Other

If we are to master the art of disagreeing well, we need to embrace the messiness of tough conversations. In the first part of this series, I have highlighted several tools to help us engage in dialogue, even when it is hard. We looked at Public Deliberation as a tool for navigating conversations around policy issues, Intergroup Dialogue as a framework for promoting dialogue across different social identities, and Crucial Conversations as a resource for managing emotionally laden, high stakes, one-on-one conversations. Now that we have some tools to engage in meaningful and productive dialogue with others, we need to move to our heart and our attitude. Regardless of the framework or process we use, if we approach tough conversations with our defenses high and full of pride, we sabotage our efforts before we even say the first words.

In part two of this series, we will focus 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? In the next part of this series, we’ll look at three ways that we can cultivate the right heart for this work and for others:

  • Cultivating Cultural Humility vs Cultural Competence
  • Understanding our Common Values
  • Avoiding the Retreat Into Silence

Let’s start with cultivating cultural humility instead of cultural competence.

When I was growing up, our standard for interacting with diverse peoples and communities was one of cultural competence, studying and mastering the defining characteristics and the stories of other cultures, as if they were facts to learn and historical artifacts to study. Others within healthcare and social work have now advocated alternatives to this approach (Kumagai & Lypson, 2009; Fisher-Borne, Cain, & Martin, 2014), as competence seems to indicate mastery of knowledge, skills, or behaviors. It does not make sense to master a culture or an issue or a colleague.

A perspective of cultural humility, on the other hand, is one that instead invites us to learn over time. It requires a posture of humility and a willingness to engage. See the difference? In one, we think we have all the answers, and we assume those answers stay the same. In the other, we realize we need to stay engaged with the other to learn from them and that the answers may change over time as we do.

Several years ago, I found myself in conversation with an African American colleague talking about the African American experience. Instead of approaching it with cultural humility, I related to her my experience as a white woman facing sexual discrimination. My colleague was rightly offended and immediately (and graciously) reminded me that I could never know the African American experience. She was right. As I reflected later on my faux pas, I was embarrassed by the lack of humility I showed. If we want to truly connect with others, we have to start from a place of humility, willing to hear and learn from the experiences of others, even and perhaps especially, when we might come to disagree with them. Isn’t it easier to engage with someone when they are truly interested in our opinions and why we hold them? Yes. So, let us lead in that conversation by being willing to extend that interest and respect to others.

Next time, we’ll look at understanding our common values. It is also much easier to disagree well when we see the areas in which we agree. Jonathan Haidt has some answers for us from evolutionary psychology that I think prove insightful into relating to others and finding a common ground, when there seems to be none.


Kumagai, A.K. & Lypson, M.L. (2009). Beyond Cultural Competence: Critical Consciousness, Social Justice, and Multicultural Education. Journal of Academy of Medicine. 84:782–787.

Fisher-Borne, M., Cain, J.M., & Martin, S.L. (2014). From Mastery to Accountability: Cultural Humility as an Alternative to Cultural Competence. Social Work Education: The International Journal, 25:2, 165-181. DOI: 10.1080/02615479.2014.977244

Click here to see all posts in this 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