How to Have Respectful Disagreements

Functioning Well

Learning how to work through disagreements is essential to developing healthy, up-building relationships and working cooperatively to accomplish worthy goals. 

For the past 47 years I have been working with individuals and families who are in conflict. Some conflict is good, necessary, and growth producing. Conflict comes from an inability of two or more people to deal effectively with differences. In marriage, parenting, and work, there are many differences. In politics, religion, and work, there are major differences.

What are the skills and attitudes that enable us to deal with differences and thus with conflict? One time I was coaching a minister on the best ways to resolve his conflicts with a long-term colleague, and he said: “I just wish I could have been on the staff with you, Jerry Kirk, Ron Rand, and Harry Causey because it was obvious you never had any conflict.”

My friend was dead wrong. Our staff of ten ministers had lots of differences and so, a lot of conflict. We had the usual differences of personality, gender, musical preferences, background, temper, and theology, which were fertile grounds for arguments, frustration, anger, disapproval, feelings of being treated unfairly, etc.

We had disagreements based on all those issues and more and we usually, but not always, resolved those conflicts rather well. By that I mean we had heated, emotional, and deeper discussions that ended with better decisions and deeper relationships based on respect and loyalty to each other as a team.

What leads to successfully resolving differences and their resulting conflicts?

  • Humility and mutual respect. See others as equals.
  • Personal peace. Not allowing myself to sandbag and build up resentments, misunderstandings and feelings of being treated unfairly.
  • Respect and empathy or deep understanding of others’ ideas, feelings, and personalities. This is not sympathy where we actually ‘feel’ their feelings, but understanding why they think and feel as they do without necessarily agreeing with them.
  • Letting people know you understand them whether you agree or not.
  • A warm smile, soft voice and humble manner.
  • Prayer together. Those who pray together stay together.

This approach suggests that we can listen to, understand, and even affirm a person with whom we disagree and yet make it clear that we do not affirm their position.

I grew up hearing my dad say: “I strongly disagree with you, but I will die trying to defend your right to believe it and say it.”