Nov 21, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Axios Finish Line: How to disagree at the dinner table

Illustration of an extended metal arm with boxing glove grasping a fork

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

This article originally appeared in Axios Finish Line, our nightly newsletter on life, leadership and wellness. Sign up here.

Disagreements around the table have become a Turkey Day cliché — and for most families, they're unavoidable.

Why it matters: Many of us aren't sure how to disagree well. But it's a critical skill at school, at work, at the bar and at Thanksgiving.

"We often walk on eggshells because we don't have a lot of cultural tools for healthy disagreement," says Melody Stanford Martin, an author and communication coach.

  • Having productive arguments can help us understand one another better. And learning how to argue well can be especially beneficial for the youngest people around your dinner table.

Case in point: Some of the most successful minds in business, politics and art were high school debaters.

But being good at disagreeing doesn't mean shouting louder or arguing harder. It means figuring out when things are worth debating — and how to debate them respectfully.

Here are the key points to keep in mind when trying to disagree well:

1. A little humility goes a long way. "We should remind ourselves that winning is something we worry about on the football field, and not with our friends and family," says Jim Otteson, a professor of business ethics at Notre Dame. "It's okay to let other people score points."

  • Older generations especially value respect and can shut down if they feel disrespected, Stanford Martin says. Try giving credit for salient points and leading with respect when debating with your older family members.

2. Agree to disagree from the start. It's unlikely you'll change someone's view in one conversation, but the debate is still worth having.

  • When you've acknowledged that you might not agree before the debate even begins, there's less pressure to win and more desire to understand, Stanford Martin notes.

3. Speak to your own experience. Support your arguments with things you've personally witnessed or experienced instead of generalizations.

4. Know when to let go. Not everyone is worth arguing with and not every topic is worth debating.

  • If someone doesn't want to listen and dominates the conversation, you can walk away.
  • If you need to diffuse a situation, try to "block and bridge," Otteson says. "You can say, 'Oh, that's interesting,' without engaging with the point to 'block' it, and then 'bridge' to a new topic."

The bottom line: "Disagreement is inevitable," Stanford Martin says. "It's part of life, and when it's healthy, it makes our relationships and our communities stronger."

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