What if the antidote to disagreement were not agreement but curiosity? Think of someone you recently disagreed with. What did she say that you are so certain she is wrong about you could not wait to correct her in person or at least in your own mind? Bonus points if you were emotionally charged by the situation. Now ask yourself some questions. Do you understand why she believes what she believes? Where did her thinking come from? Do you understand what that belief means to her and how it directs her daily life? How might having that belief serve her, and what challenges might it present? Wow, I bet you can’t answer all of that! I know that I was unable to when I did this exercise. But so what? Could we gain something by taking a different approach? Let’s explore.
Disagreeing is a habit, and it can be broken just like any habit. Now, I am not advocating for you to become someone who merely agrees with everyone all the time. That would be ridiculous and impossible anyway. I am advocating to first of all become aware of the way that the human mind habitually responds to any piece of information it disagrees with. Check out “confirmation bias” if you really want to investigate this phenomenon. Notice the way that your first impulse is to right this wrong, to look for the fallacious reasoning and premises, and to interject your own belief at the first available opportunity. Why is this? What do you gain from this approach? What value do you place on being right? What value do you place on learning?
Replace disagreement with curiosity. The best way to break an undesirable habit is to replace it with a desirable habit. What if you accepted this initial impulse of disagreeing but then consciously chose the path of genuine curiosity and openness? What could you gain from this approach? What could you learn about the other person, the world, and yourself?
A belief is just a thought you decide to continue thinking. Great news! You can do this in any situation with other people. You can also practice this by yourself in a safe space. Be curious about your own beliefs, how you came about them, and how they serve you. Try it now! Take out a notebook and a pen. Write down one belief that is very dear to you, something that should anyone challenge it, you would feel yourself becoming indignant and emotionally charged. Now ask yourself some questions. Where did it come from? Something you read? Your own direct experiences? What would need to happen for you to change that belief? Why would someone hold a belief antithetical to yours? How does this belief serve you? How is your behavior affected by this belief? What kind of person would you need to become to believe the opposite? Write for 10-15 minutes. Seriously, stop reading now and do it! What did you discover? You now have a gift you can share. Consider that the next time a situation arises where you could disagree, you now have a choice. You can offer to that other person the gift of genuine curiosity and heartfelt listening. Consider that the other person may never have had the opportunity to question certain beliefs she holds dearly.
With great power comes great responsibility. Be careful that you do not misuse your newfound superpower. The ego mind is tricky. It ALWAYS has an agenda. You may start to recognize opportunities within this powerful line of questioning. You may want to use it to manipulate or to try to “change minds” however impossible that may actually be. Avoid this temptation. Be clear with yourself that you are only seeking to understand, nothing more. Have you ever had an experience where someone was pursuing a line of questioning to attempt to persuade you? How does that compare to an experience where someone was genuinely curious about your thoughts and experiences without a personal agenda? You see how well you recognize the difference? Do not make the mistake that others do not. They will recognize it too. Be the curious 5 year old who innocently keeps asking why in order to get to the real reason. See where it leads you. Try it out. What might you gain even from a partial success? You can always go back to old ways of disagreeing later if you find the curious approach “disagreeable” to you!