How to Disagree Agreeably

One of my former students, Jon Stewart, who hosts The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, had been bugging me to watch his show and to give him some feedback. At first I told him that I was extremely busy, coaching other celebrities such as Paris Hilton and Jay Leno. But, I made time to watch one episode because it also featured another student of mine, Sandra Day O’Connor, a former Supreme Court Justice. As you all know, I not only coach celebrities on how to improve their talent but I also coach judges on how to interpret the law. I’m like the Jack of all trades.

One part of the interview that I found interesting was when O’Connor said she had to disagree agreeably with the other Justices.

How the hell do you disagree agreeably, I asked myself. That’s like an oxymoron. It was like saying “pretty ugly” except we all knew what pretty ugly meant. We don’t all know what “disagree agreeably” meant.

That day, I Facebook messaged O’Connor to ask if she could stay a little longer after our weekly coaching session. I wanted her to teach me how to “disagree agreeably” because I was her teacher and I couldn’t accept that she knew something that I didn’t know.

O’Connor told me that when she first started her gig at the U.S. Supreme Court, she was the ninth Justice. The Justices often voted 4 to 4 and her arrival was important because she brought the number of Justices to an odd number, making her vote a crucial one when votes were split in half. O’Connor said that since she was stuck with this gig until she retired, she tried her best to disagree agreeably.

But how do you do it? I fidgeted as I questioned her because she still wasn’t telling me how!

Unfortunately, she couldn’t spare me any more time because she had a board meeting with iCivics, an educational project that she started after she retired as a Justice. Her and her board members were going to talk about new games that they were launching onto the website.

She wrote me a $0.25 check for teaching her how to interpret the law for the past twenty years and immediately left my office. That day, as I waited in line at my local bank to deposit the check, I browsed the internet to learn more about disagreeing agreeably.

I found some pointers that I think we’d all find helpful. They included suggestions such as remaining calm and respecting your disagree-er’s opinion. Don’t attack them by saying “but,” “however.” Don’t even consider things like “Actually, you are wrong…,” “There is just no way that is right…,” “Are you serious?” “I disagree…”

And you probably shouldn’t roll your eyes either.

Kathy Tosoian, a speaker, suggested that, “It is never to your advantage to disagree with any opinion. It often results in a heated and argumentative discussion where nobody wins.” When you realize that you probably can’t change the person’s opinion, just move on. Display that you’ve listened to them and that you respect their opinion. Say something like, “I can understand why you feel that way,” or “I hear what you’re saying,” and then say, “what do you think of this (insert your opinion).”

I’ve recently found the above to be extremely helpful when I was listening to a person who was a dictator and thought that his opinion was the golden rule (but it was not). After hearing his endless, wrong opinions, I decided, in my most diplomatic way, to question his opinion. I kept asking why. Why should you do that? Why should you do this? And after he finished telling me his reasons, I rebutted him by saying, “But, so and so did it this way,” which implied that he was wrong because the “so and so” was far superior than he was.

Our discussion did not go well. After 5 minutes of disagreeing with this man, I told myself to shut up because it wasn’t productive. He still insisted that his opinion was right even though it was wrong. And his face was as red as a tomato, which indicated to me that he wasn’t evening listening to me but, just busy defending his opinion. So I ended the conversation with “Oh, ok.”

After I gave the bank teller my deposit slip for the $0.25 check from O’Connor, he told me one of my account numbers was incorrect. I took the slip back from him and saw that my handwritten 7 looked like a 1. I told him that he was wrong and I was right, and that he needed to get glasses because clearly that 7 was a 1.

I was really glad that I was already starting to apply the techniques of disagreeing agreeably.

Leave a Reply