You hear it all the time. Friends who would die for each other disagree vehemently about animal rights. Business partners squabble over investment strategies. Parents and teens argue about tattoos. Often, they close discussion by “agreeing to disagree.”
The idea sounds wonderfully civil. By agreeing to disagree, we pledge to respect each other’s opinions and move on. We restore harmony and concord.
Or do we?
All too often, agreeing to disagree turns into a tacit agreement never to speak of the issue again. But that creates problems on two fronts: it disrupts relationships and impedes action.
Take the relationship part. When we declare a certain issue off limits, we’re holding back a part of ourselves from the other person. That diminishes the relationship by definition. Moreover, people grow over time; their values and beliefs evolve. If we cut ourselves off from certain aspects of them, how can we share in that growth, especially if it involves the aspects on which we agreed to disagree?
Then there’s the action part. To work together on a specific issue, we have to hold certain beliefs about it in common. Often, when we agree to disagree, we haven’t established enough common ground to take action.
So is agreeing to disagree always bad? Not at all. The key is to use the idea in a way that actually promotes dialogue.
Try this on for size. What if, by “agreeing to disagree,” we agree to continue dialogue in general, to keep sharing our lives with each other, while being sensitive to the disagreement and how it affects the other’s thinking? In this way, we don’t wall off a part of ourselves from the other; quite the contrary, we agree to be gentle with the other’s hot buttons—and to trust the other’s gentleness with us as well. Rather than relationship-disrupting, this is relationship-building.
We can even take agreeing to disagree one step further—by supporting one another within our differing viewpoints. A close friend and I share similar spiritual temperaments but hold radically different theological views. We spent the better part of two years debating these disagreements by email. Sometimes, though, he just wanted my opinion of his latest sermon; rather than rant about the hot-button items in his message (which he knew I disagreed with), I tried to react within his theological framework in a way that helped him. This allowed us to support each other’s spiritual growth even as we disagree.
So yes, by all means, let’s agree to disagree—if that means we agree to hold our differences lightly, support each other, and continue the dialogue.