April 1st, 2006

ozarque figure

Linguistics; pragmatics; disagreeing without being disagreeable; part 3

Disagreeing without being disagreeable when the issue itself is serious, and is a matter of grave concern.

I can't do more than touch on this briefly here, because every disagreement of this kind is different, and my space is limited; I'll try to say something useful, all the same. The context I'd like to establish for this post is the situation in which you feel obligated to disagree openly after another person has said something to you that's like one of these examples:

a. "Worrying about global warming is ridiculous, because we're in the End Times, and life on this world isn't going to go on for more than a few more years anyway."

b. "The only reason any adults in the U.S. are poor is because they're lazy. Nobody has to be poor if they're willing to work."

c. "The only way to raise a child to be a decent human being is to spank that child thoroughly whenever the child disobeys; spare the rod and spoil the child."

d. "There is never any justification for taking a human life -- never. No matter what terrible things the person may have done."

e. "Abortion is murder, pure and simple."

f. "Abortion has to be legally available to every woman, and it has to be her choice; it's as simple as that."

Rule 3
Do all the things suggested in Part 2 -- with one exception. The suggestion about avoiding personal language has to be tailored to the real-world context. Because disagreements over issues of grave concern tend to be disagreements about personal convictions and beliefs, personal language often becomes not only appropriate but necessary. On the other hand, it continues to be important to use impersonal language whenever you can, so that the focus of the disagreement can stay on the issue instead of on the person. That is, it's one thing to say that a belief seems to you to be irrational; it's quite another, and is counterproductive, to say that the person who holds that belief seems to you to be irrational.

Rule 4
Listen with your full attention to what the other person says, no matter how distasteful it is to you, so that you really do know what it is you're disagreeing about; if you aren't sure what the person means by a particular word or phrase, ask for a definition and listen carefully to the response.

Rule 5
Because your nonverbal communication will always betray you when your words are in conflict with your inner feelings, do your very best to speak only the truth. There is almost always going to be something you can say that will be appropriate, that will not require you to sacrifice your dignity or principles, and that will also be true. When you speak what you believe to be the truth, your body language will match your words and your emotional message will not be in conflict with those words.

Suggestion 8
Respond to the stated belief (things like a-f above) by saying "I am so sorry to hear you say that." This is almost always going to be true, and it puts the ball back in the other person's court. If the response is "Why?", you have a number of options. A few examples:

"Because that belief is always going to be a barrier between us."
"Because that belief is something I would never be able to agree with."
"Because that belief is going to complicate your life and make it difficult."
"Because that belief literally puts you in danger."

Suggestion 9
Tailor what you say to your communication goal, because your language strategy would be different in each
case. The most common goals, in order of difficulty, are these four:

(a) to make it very clear to the other person that you disagree with what they have said;

(b) not only to disagree, but to make it clear what your own belief is with regard to the issue;

(c) to state what you believe to be the evidence that the other person's belief is not valid -- the process ordinarily called "consciousness-raising;

(d) to persuade the other person to abandon the stated belief.

In my opinion, goal (d) is ordinarily an acceptable choice only when you are convinced that the belief the other person holds is dangerous. For example, if someone already far too thin tells you, "I'm too fat, and I have to lose some more weight," an attempt to persuade that person to give up the idea would be justified.