How to disagree

Disagreements. You’ll find yourself doing that a lot in life. After all, one of the core behaviours at my firm is that of demonstrating challenge, speaking up if we see something that doesn’t exemplify our high standards, and not accepting the status-quo. Being an effective negotiator is a key characteristic of strong leaders as well as helping to just get stuff done.

You’ll also see constant disagreements in the news, regarding Brexit, US politics, and even whether Eden Hazard should play wide left or as a central striker. I’ve become frustrated with the quality, or lack of quality in many arguments or negotiations so I thought I’d do a bit of research into the art of the argument, and in particular, how the approach to a disagreement can affect how you are perceived by your opponent and others.

One of the key papers on this subject seems to be the 2008 essay by computer scientist Paul Graham called “How to disagree”.

In this paper Graham published his “Hierarchy of Disagreement” which has 7 levels.

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  1. Refuting the central point(explicitly refutes the central point).
  2. Refutation(finds the mistake and explains why it’s mistaken using quotes).
  3. Counterargument(contradicts and then backs it up with reasoning and/or supporting evidence).
  4. Contradiction(states the opposing case with little or no supporting evidence).
  5. Responding to tone(criticizes the tone of the writing without addressing the substance of the argument.
  6. Ad Hominem(attacks the characteristics or authority of the writer without addressing the substance of the argument).
  7. Name-calling(sounds something like, “You are an idiot.”).

 

Personally I try and operate at levels 2 and 3. I’m not clever enough to explicitly disprove the central point of an argument, but at least I can aspire to get there one day.  And maybe being smart enough to blow someones argument away could be seen as arrogant or superior. Who knows? It actually might have some negative effects. So levels 2 & 3 seem to be a good home, effective whilst still showing some vulnerability and humility.

I also encourage my team and mentees to never dip below level 3, as each drop in level comes with a corresponding loss of credibility.

Contradiction and responding to tone (levels 4 & 5) may win occasional debates, but won’t win favours and will ultimately build a reputation as a taker or someone who is only concerned with their own needs. It’s not a level you’d want to operate at long term.

As for levels 6 & 7, I’d hope no-one at your organisations engages in name-calling or ad hominem strategies. And if you ever experience that conduct then escalate to your line manager or seek help from HR.

So next time you’re engaged in a healthy debate, be that at work about your latest hot idea, or in the bar questioning Chelsea’s selection policy, be self aware enough to know where you (and your opponent) are on the Hierarchy of Disagreement.

Comments invited as always.

References

https://bigthink.com/paul-ratner/how-to-disagree-well-7-of-the-best-and-worst-ways-to-argue
https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Hierarchy_of_disagreement
https://discourse.suttacentral.net/t/a-hierarchy-for-disagreement/5943
http://www.paulgraham.com/disagree.html

Regards, Paul