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Five tips for disagreeing agreeably over the holidays

Stanford scholar Dan Edelstein shares his tips for civil discourse: be willing to change your mind; be curious about why others feel the way they do; avoid name-calling or labels; share your personal experiences; and practice active listening.

Excited about winter break but dreading certain topics at the dinner table?

Stanford scholar Dan Edelstein shares his five tips for civil discourse. (Image credit: Getty Images)

There are ways to disagree without being disagreeable, said Dan Edelstein, the William H. Bonsall Professor of French and professor, by courtesy, of history and political science in the School of Humanities and Sciences.

Edelstein teaches in the Citizenship in the 21st Century class, part of Stanford’s Civic, Liberal, and Global Education (COLLEGE) core curriculum. COLLEGE provides first-year students with citizenship skills such as civil discourse.

“To be successful citizens, we have to understand what is needed of us in our interactions with others and what are our expectations,” said Edelstein. “One of the main goals of the citizenship class is to normalize the fact that people don’t always agree, and to highlight why that’s so invaluable. In fact, disagreement is a feature, not a bug of democracy.”

It’s not only important to encourage diversity of viewpoints so new ideas can emerge but also to be confronted with ideas we disagree with, as it “forces us to clarify and refine our own thoughts,” he said.

Those on social media or watching broadcast news often see only one form of dialogue, which is debate and involves trying to persuade others to one’s point of view with little exchange of ideas, Edelstein explained.

“Really what we want our students to practice, and what I think we need more of in our country and in democracies around the world, is deliberation,” said Edelstein, citing the work of Stanford scholars James Fishkin and Larry Diamond on deliberative democracy. “It’s a way to frame a disagreement so that you keep the conversation alive and propel it forward, rather than turning it into a clash of viewpoints.”

Here are some tips Edelstein shared on disagreement:

  1. Be willing to change your mind. “To move from debate to deliberation, it’s really your state of mind that has to change. When we’re debating, we’re fast, we’re excited and passionate. That’s a terrible state of mind to be in if you want to be deliberative. You need to stay open-minded and be more reflective on things. You have to slow down, not let your emotions get fired up by what someone says when you disagree with them. It’s saying to yourself, ‘OK, I don’t agree with that, but I’m still going to listen.’ ” And sometimes you might even find yourself agreeing with an idea or point you had previously rejected.
  2. Be curious about why other people feel the way they do. “Even if what the person across the table is saying to you seems completely orthogonal to everything you believe, it can still be interesting to figure out, why do some people seem to be so persuaded by a completely different worldview than yours? It’s important to not write people off as stupid or inferior, which can happen when we get heated and we’re responding more based on an emotional reaction than a reflective one.”
  3. Avoid labels. “If I disagree with you and the first words out of my mouth are ‘Well, that’s dumb’ or ‘I think that’s stupid,’ then I’m being disagreeable. What our colleagues at the Deliberative Democracy Lab have found is that if you abstain from names and labels, and instead talk about ideas and policies, then with some exceptions, you can often have an open conversation with somebody who comes at it from a different political point of view.”
  4. Share your experiences. “When we bring things back to what we know from experience, what we’ve been through, what we’ve seen, then it makes these conversations more interesting, and perhaps a bit more harmonious. If someone says something outlandish, you might respond, ‘That’s just really not my experience, in fact, my experience has been the opposite.’ Or, ‘Oh, where did that happen? You know, that sounds really surprising to me. None of my friends seem to have had that experience.’ ”
  5. Hear what others are truly saying. “Deliberation requires actively listening to what people are saying, and not trying to counter them to prove that you’re right and they’re wrong. We make a point of defining active listening as a very specific kind of listening. It’s active in the sense that you have to constantly check yourself so that you stay in this more deliberative mode, rather than having an instinctive or repulsive reaction to what somebody says.”