What to Do When You Disagree
July 20, 2020
when we build bridges of validation that connect us, deepening our sense of
belonging and security.
“Jason was so upset!”
Cecily’s face on my computer screen looked ashen. My client had requested a
private meeting, seeking support for a recent event in her relationship that
had filled her with fear and confusion.
“On the drive home he
just kept repeating, ‘they are such idiots!’ He went on and on about my
sister and her partner, discrediting their views on social distancing and the
reopening of schools. He attacked their media influencers, and said they
were ‘brain-washed by propaganda!’”
“I sat there dumb-founded,
and I’ve been silent ever since. But now I really need your help! What do
I do? Jason doesn’t know that I actually agree with them! And I can’t pretend
that I agree with him.”
From my work with others
over the past few weeks, I knew that Cecily wasn’t alone.
Some of my clients had
shared their trepidation that divisiveness in our current culture was posing a
threat to their partnerships.
“I was just trying to fly
under the radar, and hoped our differences wouldn’t be pronounced, but as
things are boiling over out there, I’m really scared. Can Jason and I ever get
on the same page? Are we headed for disaster?”
She continued, “Since
we’ve seen other things pretty much eye to eye in the past, I’m sure he just
assumes we agree on issues around the pandemic. But I actually like some of the
same news sources as my sister. I’ve had some great talks with her and other
friends in this camp, and I think their views are wise.”
“So, now I think Jason
and his camp are the misguided ones. And I’m surprised that he seems so dug in
on his opinions. I can’t imagine that I could ever change his mind.”
As I listened to Cecily,
and as I’ve heard others like her recently, I realized she was pursuing the
When differences of
opinion arise, we often have a strong instinct to solve things by coming to an
agreement. It might feel necessary that for the relationship to be ok, we need
to be on the same page.
For this reason, some
people aren’t ever comfortable taking a side, for fear of being misaligned with
their partner. Others feel they can’t be in a relationship with someone who
thinks differently. But these aren’t good strategies for creating a healthy
relationship, which requires the thoughts, feelings, and needs of both people
to be expressed and to hold value.
“Let’s redefine your
goal,” I offered Cecily. “What if the goal is not to agree, but instead
to see and be seen?”
We know from Gottman
research that it isn’t agreement that makes couples happy. In fact, the
happiest couples disagree on about 69% of issues,
and possibly even core values like politics and religion.
What happens in the brain
when we’re seen.
What really helps us stay
relationally connected is to experience being seen and heard, while also being
accepted. This stimulates coherence in the limbic system – the emotional and
attachment parts of our brains. In other words, when we’re aware that our inner
reality is mirrored, known, and welcomed, it deepens our sense of belonging and
“What’s really scary to
you now is that Jason doesn’t ‘see’ you,” I explained. “And since you know he
doesn’t welcome your views, it’s registered as threatening to your limbic
system, so you feel alarm signals going off.”
The repair for your
relationship will happen when both of you are seen, heard, and still accepted
in regard to your different positions on things.
I helped her start to
stimulate this relational change by preparing to initiate a conversation. I
always recommend starting with the simple “sandwich” approach for connecting
around difficult topics. Sandwich your challenging message between two positive
In Cecily’s case, she
wanted to open this important dialogue with Jason by affirming him, and letting
him know that she could see where he was coming from.
I helped her form an “I
see you” statement with the following prompts: “What about his views make sense
to you? You don’t have to agree or hold those views. But you know Jason better
than anybody. You can imagine why these views appeal to his core values, and
why he’d feel so strongly that he is right and others are wrong?”
Cecily was able to form
an “I see you” statement respectfully validating what she knew of Jason. This
would create a bridge of connection. It would give Jason the mirroring his
attachment system needed to feel accepted.
“Now,” I coached her,
“you can disclose your truth. You want to provide some reasons for your views,
but you don’t need to make a big case for why you think and feel as you do
Remember, you’re not
trying to win an argument or even to get him to agree with you.
You just want to shine
light into a neglected place right now. Your goal is to update him about
yourself, and how you’re thinking about current events.”
The magic word to
transition from your “I see you” statement to your truth statement, is
“AND.” “And” is a connecting word. Unlike “but” it doesn’t discount the
other’s point of view. “And” is powerful linguistic cement. It is able to hold
two opposing views together in the same sentence, which is exactly what we
need. Hearing Cecily’s truth linked to agreed-upon positives all
in one statement would show this couple that this relationship can hold two
opposing views together as well.
Cecily structured her
simple truth statement, “I see why you think ‘abc,’ AND I actually think
She then completed her
sandwich message with the positive affirmation, “Even though we disagree, there
are valid points on both sides, and I think we can accept each other, even if
our views don’t line up.”
This last statement makes
another crucial affirmation. It distinguishes us from our
views. It asserts that we are accepted, regardless of what opinions we
I then suggested, “If you
like, you can continue by asking Jason if there’s anything in your viewpoint
that he can validate. Remind him that you don’t expect him to agree—but as he
considers what he knows of you, can he see why you would hold that opinion? If
he’s open, you can invite him to use the following questions to dive into a
Here are a few questions
we can all ask one another to create a listening conversation. Keep in mind
that the purpose is to learn or update one another about your views. In order
to keep out of the argument zone, it’s important to listen to your partner’s
answers with skillful reflection and validation only. Be careful to hear one
another out completely and not answer with a disputing position unless argument
is a relational style you both tolerate well and enjoy.
feelings are you noticing regarding the pandemic problems? (These can range
from mild to severe; they can come and go and vary. Examples:
fear, worry, anger, dread, confusion, frustration, hope, concern, bewildered,
lonely, detached, fed up, grieved, optimistic, torn,) Be sure to let your
partner know that all feelings are valid.
if anyone, do you think has the best handle on the problems? And why?
makes sense to you about the policies of the people you want to follow?
deeper values of yours do those ideas appeal to?
do you hope will happen because of those plans/policies?
do you think might be missing from the policies of your side if anything?
do you wish our community/society/world had done differently?
there anything you wish you would have done differently?
are you planning to do going forward?
can I support you? (Even though I may continue to hold different views.)
When we consider that no
person, ideology, or system is perfect from every angle, or will satisfy
everyone, we can let go of rigid stances, even though we may hold strong
feelings and opinions. We are all under a lot of pressure, but as we
build bridges of validation that connect us, we also create the only hope we
have to influence one another. Another important Gottman finding is that “to have influence, we need to
accept influence.” And in order to work together, we need to
regard where others are coming from. We can start by holding respectful space
for those in our lives whose views may differ from our own.
changed lives. Her gifts blend wisdom with wit, and neuroscience with
kind connection. As a Certified Gottman Therapist and Certified Clinical Trauma
Professional, she sees clients in her private practice in Kennewick,
Washington, and helps people from all over the world by distance therapy and
through her blog and website.