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Mark Leary Ph.D.
Mark Leary Ph.D.

How to Have Less Disagreeable Disagreements

Good listening can reduce the defensiveness that fuels heated discussions.

Most of us have a hard time not becoming defensive and angry when people disagree with us. No matter how open-minded and easy-going we think we are, having other people tell us that our beliefs or opinions are wrong usually raises our hackles. Sometimes we try to hide our irritation and defensiveness, but disagreements often escalate as both people become increasingly ego-involved and entrenched in their views.

Of course, much of the time, the issue at hand is pretty trivial, and the conflict is mostly just a clash of egos. And, even when the topic itself is important, it often doesn’t matter at all, at least not in any practical way, what the other person happens to think. But still, tempers flare, voices are raised, and feelings get hurt.

If we look at it objectively, disagreeing with someone simply says “I believe that your facts or opinions are incorrect.” What’s the big deal, particularly when what the other person thinks often doesn’t have any real implications for anybody or anything?

Although on the surface, disagreement is simply about the merits of some fact or opinion, another message often lurks just beneath the surface. Being disagreed with often conveys that the other person thinks we’re stupid, misinformed, irrational, biased, narrow-minded, or, in the case of religious and political topics, morally misguided or downright evil. Unflattering insinuations obviously convey a lack of respect or value for us as a person. In many instances, it’s this interpersonal message and not the fact someone thinks we’re wrong, which raises the temperature.

Photo by Fauxels / Courtesy of Pexels Used with permission.
Disagreement at work
Source: Photo by Fauxels / Courtesy of Pexels Used with permission.

The question is how we can have disagreements without allowing this hidden, secondary issue to inflame the conversation. One answer involves responsive, high-quality listening.

We often don’t listen very well when we talk with other people. We’re frequently preoccupied, distracted, or just tuned-out. But things get much worse when we’re embroiled in difficult conversations, particularly those that involve disagreement or conflict. We quickly dismiss what the other person says, interrupt them in mid-sentence, and are preoccupied with forming our arguments rather than listening carefully to theirs. And, of course, they’re doing the same thing. And our poor listening adds further to the impression that we have low regard for the other person. Not only do we think they’re wrong, but we don’t seem to value or respect them enough to try to understand their position or to respond civilly.

But, there’s no reason why we can’t listen carefully and fully to what the other person has to say even though we strongly disagree. You can be a good listener even in the midst of an argument. Attentive listening conveys both, that you’re considering the other person’s ideas carefully and that you value him or her enough as a person to try to understand what they are saying.

Research suggests that high-quality listening has three primary ingredients. The first involves conveying genuine interest in the other person’s position, showing that you want to understand what they think and why. This requires allowing the other person to make their points without interruption or immediate rebuttal and is facilitated by well-timed questions that probe for clarification and further details.

Second, good listeners make it clear that they understand the speaker’s point. Disagreements can’t proceed productively unless both people think the other person understands what they are saying. Reflective listening in which the listener restates the speaker’s position and asks questions to refine it ensures that the issue is clear. And, it conveys that the speaker values the speaker and the conversation enough to try to get it right.

Third, good listening conveys positive regard for the speaker by making it clear that, though you disagree strongly, you are not judging him or her as a person. Essentially, you separate your judgment of the person from his or her belief or opinion. Conveying interest and being certain that you understand the other person’s position takes big strides in this direction, but it helps to bolster this message through an air of friendly acceptance.

Of course, sometimes the topic of the disagreement is such that this third consideration is virtually impossible. If a person is arguing that pedophilia or slavery is perfectly acceptable, most of us aren’t inclined to withhold judgment of the person. But in most everyday disagreements, even heated ones, we genuinely don’t evaluate the other party negatively as a person, and we should make that point clear.

High-quality listening won’t make all difficult conversations go smoothly. But it does reduce factors that increase defensiveness, evoke anger, and cause people to become more entrenched in their views. In fact, research shows that high-quality listening leads people to think in a more open-minded way about their beliefs and opinions, helping them to think through considerations they hadn’t fully grasped while they were intensely defending their views and themselves.

And, although I’m not aware of any research evidence on this point, I strongly suspect that being a better listener may lower our own defensiveness as well.


Itzchakov, G., & Reis, H.T. (2020). Perceived responsiveness increases tolerance of attitude ambivalence and enhances intentions to behave in an open-minded manner. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Itzchakov, G., Weinstein, N., Legate, N., & Amar, M. (in press). Can high quality listening lower speakers' prejudiced attitudes? Journal of Experimental Social Psychology

About the Author
Mark Leary Ph.D.

Mark Leary, Ph.D., is the Garonzik Family Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University and author of The Curse of the Self.

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