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Judge Not: How to Respectfully Disagree

Don’t let disagreements lead to disdain.

Key points

  • Research shows that people are more likely to consider different viewpoints in debates where they trust the person they're arguing with.
  • People tend to see criticism of their views as critiques of their character because that’s how they usually think of others.
  • When disagreements arise, assume the best of intentions.
Character Lab, used with permission
Source: Character Lab, used with permission

Today, I’ve asked Eranda Jayawickreme to share his tip of the week.

“I’m all for helping refugees, but some cultures just don’t fit with the American way of life.”

So said my airplane seatmate a few years ago. He and I were in a heated discussion—should the United States admit more refugees from war-ravaged Syria? As someone who has done research on how forcibly displaced populations cope with the impact of political violence, I had strong views on the topic.

Of course, a degree in psychology does not make me a specialist in the complexities of refugee policy in my adopted country. I couldn’t rattle off statistics or deeply informed analyses of resettlement issues. Yet my first instinct when hearing my seatmate’s claim was to challenge him. And, in the back of my mind, to judge him.

Why was it hard to be humble and honest about what I didn’t know in this situation? In a recent study, people were more likely to consider different viewpoints in situations where they saw the person they were arguing with as moral and therefore trustworthy. Conversely, they were less likely to be open to opposing views when they disliked the person. The content of the disagreement—morality, facts, opinions—didn’t matter; what was important was what they thought of their conversation partner.

That may be why we become defensive when we get into arguments—we tend to see criticism of our views as critiques of our character because that’s how we typically think of others. If I wanted to convince my seatmate that refugees—from Syria, Afghanistan, or other politically unstable nations—deserve a chance in this country, perhaps I should have listened more and judged less.

If I could go back and redo my conversation on the plane that day, I would ask, “What do you think are the reasons we should help refugees? Where do you think refugee policies have gone right in this country?” In today’s polarized environment, I think we all need to cultivate intellectual humility more than ever and model these skills for the young people in our lives.

Don’t believe that when someone disagrees with you on an issue, it reflects a character flaw.

Do assume the best of intentions when disagreements arise. If you take a step back and remind yourself that they’re not a bad person, you can disagree without being disagreeable.

With humility and gratitude,

Eranda

Eranda Jayawickreme is the Harold W. Tribble professor of psychology and senior research fellow at the Program for Leadership and Character at Wake Forest University.

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