Intelligent Disagreement

A friend sent me, and I read with interest, a transcript of a talk that recently appeared in the New York Times – The Dying Art of Disagreement by Brett Stephens.  In it, Stephens notes:

“In other words, to disagree well you must first understand well.  You have to read deeply, listen carefully, watch closely.  You need to grant your adversary moral respect; give him the intellectual benefit of the doubt; have sympathy for his motives and participate emphatically with his line of reasoning.  And you need to allow for the possibility that you might yet be persuaded of what he has to say.”

Wow, that disagreeing well sounds like hard work!  And I thought all I had to do when someone took a position different than mine was: 1) quit listening; 2) start formulating an eloquent statement of MY position.  But for those of us who are “disagreement challenged” Stephens later boils it down to its essence, and though not easy, somehow makes it sound easier when he lists the “crucial prerequisites” of “intelligent disagreement,” namely: 1) shut up; 2) listen up; 3) pause; and 4) reconsider.  Then, and only then, can I, in an “intelligent disagreement; 5) speak up.

There was much that stuck with me in the speech, but this question rose to the surface – In any given disagreement is my goal “intelligent disagreement” or to “win?”   It occurred to me that the response to that threshold question would control the remainder of the process, and whether I engaged under Stephens’ guidelines, or mine.  Or more simply stated, do I see “intelligent disagreement” as a possibility or as an oxymoron?

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