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Difficult conversations: How to agree to disagree, according to a Pitt communications expert

  • Health and Wellness

College campuses have long been places to share ideas, engage in difficult conversations and have one’s views challenged. But respectful exchange can be hard, especially in times that feel unusually divisive.

That’s partly why Pitt’s Office of the Provost designated 2023-24 as the Year of Discourse and Dialogue. In addition to a year’s worth of events exploring the theme, dozens of projects that grapple with the subject received University funding — from an inclusive dialogue program and civic education efforts at Pitt-Johnstown to a First Amendment Teach-In and civil discourse lectures on the Pittsburgh campus.

On April 5, a daylong event, Developing Capacity for Discourse and Dialogue Across Our Campuses, will give the Pitt community a chance to examine the dynamics of academic freedom and freedom of expression in the university context.

Ahead of the capstone event, Pittwire is sharing tips for having better conversations and opening yourself up to different viewpoints. To help us out, Gordon Mitchell, an associate professor in the Department of Communication and former director of the William Pitt Debating Union, tackled the idea of “agree to disagree” —  a framing that he happened to disagree with.

“On the one hand, it does seem to imply a commitment to ongoing dialogue. You use that phrase when you're describing a relationship with people who are disagreeing and the expectation is that they're going to disagree maybe again, down the road, right?

“So ‘agree to disagree’ is one way of thinking about it. But it's also disagreeing to ever agree at all, which is another part of the problem.”

Read on for more and register for the capstone event.

What does productive disagreement look like?

The term of art is “deliberative openness.” In other words, there's more to it than just being open, it’s actually being open in a particular way that is contributing to this activity called deliberation, which involves choice, decision-making, judgment — and in a group setting. You can't do that alone.

You also have a certain viewpoint in terms of, if it’s a disagreement, a certain posture of respect that you have for your opponent.

Is productive dialogue teachable?

Absolutely teachable. Let’s take cultural studies. That intellectual movement is big on saying who’s the most powerful. It’s the entertainment culture, right? It’s the mass media. It’s the internet. That’s the dominant teacher and that teacher is cultivating in students, unfortunately, these days a skill of not disagreeing, not arguing productively, not even having discourse productively in a lot of contexts.

Are there ways that you can study and understand that and teach students how they can maybe communicate differently? Absolutely, you can. And one of the exciting things is that if you’re lucky to have access to, for example, the ancient tradition, you can tap into that and actually see how these are questions that people have been wrestling with for millennia.

How can I signal that I’m open to changing my mind during an argument?

The most basic answer to that is you can announce the change in your view explicitly — maybe a softening of your initial view, like, “Oh, wow, that makes me think twice actually, about what I said before. What you’re saying is reaching me; it’s causing me to actually think about this in a different way.”

[Read more from our difficult conversations series: How to give a meaningful apology and how to deliver bad news.]

How is social media affecting disagreements?

The communication that occurs in its orbit is heavily over-determined by the business model of corporate platforms and sites. And their business model requires designing the platforms to maximize engagement and sustain engagement over time — coming back, staying longer.

That discourages dialogue because that is what creates these echo chambers of like-minded others sorting themselves into echo chamber type communication. That does keep people coming back to the platforms, but it doesn't actually do very well in terms of providing opportunities for people to disagree in a productive way.

The tragedy, in my view, is that productive dialogue is becoming increasingly scarce and displaced by a form that says our group is the only one capable of critical thinking, everyone in the other group is not, and is not worthy of your attention — in fact, you’re wasting your time if you attempt to engage them.

What are some ways to respectfully disagree with someone?

Start with something that establishes some overlap and stitches together enough common ground that then you can put more pressure on the statement later on. If you start an argument with someone and are so overbearing and so threatening in the way that you’re forming your position, the likelihood that you’re going to effectively engage that person, let alone change their opinion, drops dramatically. And in fact, you have this documented psychological reactance: If a person’s worldview or identity is threatened, the research suggests that they may actually hold on even if it’s a fact checking scenario.

So how do you get around that? One way is, frame your arguments in a way that affirms the identity and worldview of your audience. You can do that in a number of ways. One is, understand your opponent’s claim as more than just a surface-level assertion. Take it as a position. You have to respect that there’s so much underneath supporting the assertion in the form of values, emotional commitments, experiences, group markers of identity and figure out some way to speak to those.

Another strategy that’s counterintuitive: acknowledge uncertainty. You would think that if experts acknowledge their uncertainty, then they’re going to be dismissed or questioned that they haven't made their mind up. Actually, the literature shows that if you do acknowledge uncertainty, that has a positive effect in terms of cultivating the conversation space.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.


— Nichole Faina and Robyn K. Coggins