The Terms of Agreement

Conflict and negotiation is not new to this nation. What the Fiscal Cliff teaches us about getting along. 

The Art of Disagreeing Agreeably

How to disagree and say no in a way that augments goodwill.

sustaining cooperation keeps relationships harmonious
Sustaining cooperation keeps relationships connected.
Are you wary of saying no to requests that come your way? Do you dread disagreeing for fear that it might bring forth conflict?  Do you sometimes withhold opinions lest you antagonize folks? The following triple A (AAA) strategy for expressing disagreement enables folks with differing viewpoints to keep conversations harmonious.  That's how "good guys" and people-pleasing gals become winners when it comes to building lasting relationships.

When participants in a sensitive dialogue use this skill, they progress cooperatively to ever-enlarged mutual understandings of the issue they are discussing.  Instead of polarizing into an I'm right, You're wrong battle, they develop shared understandings that set a foundation for creating win-win solutions.

Here's an example of disagreeing in a way that leads to adversarial positioning:

Jeremy loves talking politics.  His wife Brenda finds the intensity of most political discussions totally off-putting.  

Jeremy:   You should get more politically enaged.  Talking politics is essential to being an informed and participatory member of American democracy.

Brenda:   Not in my house it isn't  I hate when political topics come up...

Jeremy: Look, I live here too.

Brenda: I told you, I hate political discussions. 

Can you hear the argument brewing?  The anger heating up?  The odds of a blowup rising?  Even if the escalation doesn't continue, the distance between Jeremy and Brenda is likely to widen.

How might you, if you were Brenda or Jeremy, respond with the same information and yet in a manner that would braid the two of your ideas together instead of pushing you apart or into combat?

Here's  a second version of the same conversation, this time using the art of disagreeing agreeably.  What does Brenda do differently this time?  And Jeremy? 

Jeremy: You should get more politically enaged.  Talking politics is essential to being an informed and participatory member of American democracy.

Brenda (agreeing and augmenting Jeremy's point, and only then adding her own differing perspective): Yes, I agree that being poitically informed probably does make people responsible citizens.   (Augmenting the point) It's hard to vote if you don't know whom or what you're voting for.  

And at the same time, I get really uncomfortable when political topics come up.  I think it's because most people get so adamant that they are right.  I prefer topics that people stay calmer about.  I like conversations in which people are really listening to each other.

Jeremy:  A lot of people do fixed in their political beliefs.  I agree that the more certain people feel that they are right, the more they seem to become at risk for ignoring, or worse beating up on, people who have different viewpoints.  

(Offering an example that augments the point) I'm sad to admit that on political issues I'm one of those overly-certain people.  I know that I get too excited.  And the more hyped I feel the less I listen to alternative viewpoints.  

(Adding) How about if I try to talk politics with you in a new way, staying calm and listening more for what could be right in your viewpoints even if I feel tempted to reject them immediately?

Brenda: I'm wlling to give it a try....  Thanks for being so open to my concerns...  

Here's the Triple A formula for disagreeing agreeably.  The same formula works for receiving criticsm, and also to saying No to requests.

  • Agree 
  • Augment 
  • Add.

To agree, it can help to start with the word Yes.  "Yes, I agree that being politically informed...." The key is to listen for some aspect of what was said that you can react to with agreement or appreciation.

To augment, pick up on a specific word or point that you just heard, and elaborate on what you agree with about it.  

"It's hard to vote if you..."

Taking the point you have just agreed with a step further gives you a way to truly digest what you have heard.  Offering an instance that exemplies the point you just heard also reassures the speaker that you really do understand the import of their point.  Augmenting thereby firms up the feeling for both of you that you are sitting on the same side of the table vis a vis the problem.   

To add, beware of your introductory linking word.  But subtracts.  That is, if  you link with but, you will take away, negate and erase all you have said in the way of agreement and augmentation.  By contrast, And or and at the same time signal addition.  

Why Triple A Works

Once you've signified that you are adding rather than taking away from the point that your dialogue partner has made, you've established that both your point and the other person's will count.   

Odds are that your dialogue partner will then return like with like. Hopefully, your agreeable way of adding your differing information to the original point will set a collaborative pattern for the rest of the dialogue.  

The Triple A strategy is likely also to cool any emotional heat or animosity that has begun to build up. As people abandon their hostile sniping or tug of war to instead, together, build a shared data pool, both the specific discussion and the relationship as a whole feel positive.  

What about saying No when someone wants you to do something you don't want to do?

In the following example Olivia uses the Triple A technique to say No to her co-worker Clara.

Clara: My friends and I are planning a fun party this weekend. I"m inviting everyone in our office.   Will you and your husband come join us?

Olivia: (Agree) A party with all the office invited sounds very fun to me. 

(Augment) It's been years since we've gotten together after work.  I would love to join you.

(Add) And at the same time Roger and I have plans already to spend the evening alone, just the two of us.  Believe it or not, Roger even took the initiative on finding a babysitter.  So I'll need to miss the party this time.  Alas,...

Again, a graceful No couched in positive language and expressed in a tone of agreement enables Olivia to say No to Clara's invitation and at the same time to minimize the sting to her good friend and colleague.  

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Susan Heitler, PhD, a Denver Clinical psychologist, is author of multiple publications including her book for teaching couples the skills they need for marriage success, The Power of Two.  A graduate of Harvard and NYU, Dr. Heitler's most recent project is an interactive website that teaches the collaborative communication skills that sustain loving relationships, PowerOfTwoMarriage.com