What is The Goal in Disagreements?

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

الحمد لله رب العالمين، والصلاة والسلام على سيد الأنبياء والمرسلين واله وأصحابه أجمعين أما بعد

Many of us have heard of the expression, “let us agree to disagree”. But what does it actually entail and how is it expressed?

Usually, when we ask of our interlocutor to agree to disagree with us, we are merely asking them to suspend their view for the sake of temporal harmony, until we somehow find the time to conclusively prove them wrong. 

How often have we had conflicting views with our friends, our spouses, even our teachers? To merely agree with them in the spirit of harmony would indeed be counter productive, as the inhibition of expression would aggravate the conflicting view that lingers within us, burns inside, and yearn to come out, as we truly feel it is the truth irrespective of who is the one that is bringing it forward. It then finally becomes a crusade for the truth, and our moral principle does not allow us to remain quiet anymore; we deem it our responsibility. Thus, with time, the agreement to abandon disagreement is abandoned itself.

So how do we dispute a view with which we disagree?

Of concern is when it involves a person we are closely associated, and with whom we share our lives, unlike a distant person to whom we may send a disparaging electronic message without any regard for meeting them in person or even communicating henceforth in lieu of their different stance that is clearly unacceptable to us? 

Indeed, the above is commonplace in this age of mass communication. If people communicated face to face, perhaps they would not be as harsh owing to the realization that tomorrow we have to meet them.

Consider a scenario: Maryam rides in the car with her husband who informs her of his “dim witted friends” that think practicing social distancing is actually nonsensical and that they are mere victims of some online conspiracy theory group or website. However, the wife remains absolutely silent as she actually agrees with his friends and is too fearful of conflict to express her view in contrast to her husband’s dichotomous one.

Returning to our goal, let us ponder here for a second: what is our objective? Is it to convert others to our own individual weltanschauung? If that is the goal, we indeed are doomed to failure.

The goal must be “to see and be seen”

A recent Gottman research on relationships found that fulfilled and content couples disagree on 69% of issues, and possibly even core values such as politics and religion. How do we make sense of that in light of the above scenario?

What takes place in the brain when we are seen?

What really helps us stay relationally connected is to experience being seen and heard, while also being accepted. This stimulates coherence in the limbic system – the emotional and attachment parts of our brains. In other words, when we are aware that our inner reality is mirrored, known, and welcomed, it deepens our sense of belonging and security. This is exactly, why when someone does not welcome your views, it is registered as threatening to your limbic system, which then triggers an alarm.

The simple cure is to be seen, heard, and still accepted in regard to your different positions on things. 

There are different ways of accomplishing this, but we will focus on the “sandwich method”. The idea is to sandwich your opposing view within two positive statements.

In our important dialogue, we want to firstly affirm what is said, and let them know that we can see from their perspective.

So, in the example above, Maryam should first start by asking her husband:

“Which of your friends views make sense to you?” (Positive)

“You don’t have to agree or hold those views.” (Negative)

“But you know your friends better than anybody. You can imagine why these views appeal to their core values, and why they would feel so strongly that they are right and others are wrong?” (Positive)

Maryam was able to form an “I see you” statement respectfully validating what she knew of her husband. This would create a bridge of connection. It would give him the mirroring his attachment system needed to feel accepted.

Now she would want to disclose her truth. She wants to provide some reasons for her views, but she does not need to make a big case for why she thinks and feel as she does right now.

Remember the goal

We are not trying to win an argument or even to get them to agree with us; we just want to shine light into a neglected place right now.

Our goal is to update them about ourselves, and how we are thinking; in her case, how her perspective is formed around current events.

Important – the magic word to transition from our “I see you” statement to our truth statement, is “and.” “And” is a connecting word; unlike “but”, however, it does not discount the other’s point of view. Moreover, “and” is a powerful linguistic cement. It is able to hold two opposing views together in the same sentence, which is exactly what we require.

Hearing Maryam’s truth linked to agreed-upon positives all in one statement would show this couple that this relationship can hold two opposing views together as well. Maryam structured her simple truth statement; “I see why you thinkabc,’ and I actually think ‘xyz.’” She then completed her sandwich message with the positive affirmation, “Even though we disagree, there are valid points on both sides, and I think we can accept each other, even if our views differ.”

Maryam’s last statement makes another crucial affirmation. It distinguishes us from our views. It asserts that we are accepted, regardless of what opinions we hold. It draws a line between the person and his actions and views; this has strong implications for when we disagree with a person’s actions; we should not alienate them, but rather, try and understand the angle they have adopted in the performance of said act.

Returning to Maryam, she may ask her husband if there is anything in her viewpoint that he can validate. She should remind him that she does not expect him to agree – but as he considers what he knows of her, can he see why she holds particular viewpoints?  If he is open, she can invite him to use the following questions to dive into a deeper dialogue.

Here are a few questions we can all ask one another to create a listening conversation. The current pandemic is used as an example. Keep in mind that the purpose is to learn or update one another about your views. In order to keep out of the argument zone, it is important to listen to the other person’s answers with skilful reflection and validation only. Be careful to hear one another out completely and not answer with a disputing position (unless argument is a relational style you both tolerate well and enjoy).

• What feelings are you noticing in regard to the pandemic problems? (These can range from mild to severe; they can come and go, and vary.  Examples: fear, worry, anger, dread, confusion, frustration, hope, concern, bewildered, lonely, detached, fed up, grieved, optimistic, and torn). Be sure to let them know that all their feelings are valid. 

• Who, if anyone, do you think has the best handle on the problems? And why?

• What makes sense to you about the policies of the people you want to follow?

• What deeper values of yours do those ideas appeal to?

• What do you hope will happen as a result of those plans/policies?

• What do you think might be missing from the policies of your side, if anything?

• What do you wish our community/society/world had done differently? 

• Is there anything you wish you would have done differently?

• What are you planning to do going forward?

• How can I support you? (Even though I may continue to hold different views.) 

When we consider that no person alive today, no theory, and no understanding of an ideology, is perfect from every angle, or will satisfy everyone, we can let go of rigid stances, even though we may hold strong feelings and opinions.  We are all under a lot of pressure, but as we build bridges of validation that connect us, we also create the only hope we have to influence one another. Another important finding is that “to have influence, we need to accept influence.”

And in order to work together, we need to regard where others are coming from. We can start by holding respectful space for those in our lives whose views may differ from our own.

I conclude with the words of the great Imam al-Shafi’i (d. 820 CE)

“Never do I argue with a man with a desire to hear him say what is wrong, or to expose him and win victory over him. Whenever I face an opponent in debate I silently pray – O Lord, help him so that truth may flow from his heart and on his tongue, and so that if truth is on my side, he may follow me; and if truth be on his side, I may follow him.”

May الله  ﷻ unite our hearts with tolerance, mahabbah, hikmah, and understanding.

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