When we disagree, we bring the whole of our selves to the conversation: head, heart and gut. The trouble with most treatises on debate or argument is that they only focus on the first. I wanted to address all three. That's why I persuaded an interrogation expert to let me role-play the part of a police interviewer. Most of the disagreements you or I have in our everyday lives do not obviously resemble criminal interviews. Our arguments might be about the best way to run a project at work, or whether it's OK to eat meat, or which of us is drawing too heavily on the joint account. But they do have something fundamental in common with the one I had with Frank Barnet, and it's this: they are, at least in part, related to how we feel about each other. Underneath every disagreement a wordless negotiation over a relationship is taking place. If we don't settle that, the conversation doesn't stand a chance.
The most difficult disagreements can be transformed into productive conversations by paying close attention to this hidden dimension. Some people do this for a living. We can learn a huge amount from those who manage highly charged, high-stakes, adversarial conversations in the course of work: police officers, hostage negotiators, diplomats and others. I've found remarkable similarities between the challenges faced by these experts and those faced by any of us in a marital row, political debate or workplace dispute. By combining this lived expertise with ideas and research from communication science and cognitive psychology, I've been able to identify a universal grammar of productive disagreement, available for any of us to apply to our lives.
In the course of doing so I've not only role-played the part of a criminal interrogator; I've travelled to Memphis to watch cops being trained in how to handle tense encounters on street corners where the prospect of violence is never far away. I've talked to divorce mediators about how they get two people who can barely stand to be in the same room as each other to come to an agreement. I've asked therapists about how they talk to patients who resist every piece of advice they are given, and I've learned how hostage negotiators talk people out of blowing up a building or throwing themselves off a bridge. These professionals do very different things but they are all experienced at retrieving something valuable from the most unpromising of circumstances. They are masters of the conversation beneath the conversation.
I've learnt a lot about humans along the way, including the one writing these words. I'm not one of life's natural warriors; even mild confrontation can make me itch with discomfort. But I've learnt that conflict is not something to be avoided at all costs, and that in the right circumstances, it has immense and gratifying benefits. I've learnt that children are happier when they have open disagreements with their parents— as long as those disagreements don't turn poisonous—and that couples who have vigorous arguments are often more content than those who avoid confrontation. I've learnt that workplace teams function at a higher level when they know how to disagree directly, even passionately, without tearing at the fabric of their relationships. I've learnt that too much agreement is bad for us, and that we can only make the most of our differences when we disagree well.
Knowing how to disagree in a way that leads to progress and understanding instead of stasis and acrimony can help each and every one of us. Productive disagreement is more than just a crucial life skill, however. At a time when humanity is struggling to cope with unprecedented existential challenges, it's a vital necessity for our species. Disagreement is a way of thinking, perhaps the best one we have, critical to the health of any shared enterprise, from marriage to business to democracy. We can use it to turn vague notions into actionable ideas, blind spots into insights, distrust into empathy. We have never been more in need of it.
In case you're under any illusion: disagreeing productively is hard. Evolution has not equipped us for it. Nor is it something for which we get trained. In fact, I think it's fair to say that most us are pretty hopeless at it. That needs to change, or else our increasingly vociferous disagreements are destined to generate heat without light. Either that or they won't generate anything, because we refuse to have them. And the only thing worse than having toxic arguments is not having arguments at all.