We are attending many more virtual social events this year — meetups via online communities, gatherings with family and friends, co-working sessions, book club and other themed group discussions.

Within these 20 to 40 person group discussions, I've noticed that sometimes conversation stays at a more abstract level. We don't get to discussing concrete examples or sharing real experiences or going deeper into a topic. I am speculating that one reason for this is our desire for agreement. Disagreeing is tricky, it often introduces awkwardness in the group and even discomfort. This makes sense because we don't have a protocol for engaging in a positive disagreement in an online meeting of mostly strangers.*

I want to explore some questions and brainstorm possible principles for positive disagreement.  (I'm thinking of voluntary social gatherings for discussing ideas, connecting with others, etc. — not work meetings)

Starting Questions

When someone is speaking and their opinion doesn't ring true with your experience, what do you do? If you have something to add to the conversation but that involves disagreeing with the original speaker, what do you do?

When you're sharing your opinion or your perspective on a topic and someone says 'I don't agree with that', how do you react?

What would be the advantages of sharing disagreements? If done with a constructive, positive spirit, a great deal. Different contradictory perspectives can enrich the discussion and make it more nuanced. Being candid could lead to more real conversations and broaden a shared awareness and understanding.

Observations on Disagreeing

In virtual group discussions, I wonder how many others are listening and thinking 'this doesn't ring true for me and my experience'. But they'll rarely speak up as the flow of the conversation is going in a different direction. And it's too much effort to go against the flow.

In most cases, when a disagreement is being discussed in a group, there is a collective sense of discomfort and we all just want to get back to agreeing and do away with the awkwardness.

When someone says "I disagree with that", or "I don't agree with that at all". We feel a sudden alertness. We prepare to listen carefully but also start planning our response. In my observation if person D disagrees with something person A has said, person A chooses one of these two types of response.

1. Defend and strengthen their resolve in their opinion.

2. Look for points of agreements in person D's point of view.

Usually it's the second option, there is a desire to 'diffuse' the disagreement so we can go back to a more comfortable place of agreeing.  Person A ends up saying "okay I see what you're saying and I agree with that actually".

This may be because we don't have ground rules for disagreeing in a positive way. What if there was a protocol that both person A and person D could follow. They can both trust that the other person is engaging in good faith. Some possible ground rules for both sides:

For person D, the one doing the disagreeing:

-- Don't say 'I disagree' to be controversial or to get attention. You have to genuinely hold an opposite opinion, prior to having come to this discussion.

-- State your point of view first. And then say 'I disagree'. It'll be evident by then.

For person A, who made the original statement:

-- First determine if the disagreement is in the interest of advancing the discussion or an attempt to get attention or any other negative reason for disagreeing.

-- For positive ones, get curious. Seek to understand person's experience and what shaped their perspective. "I'm curious to follow your logic and how you came to that point of view" or something like that.

More Questions

-- In order to effectively disagree with someone do you need to have some form of an existing relationship with them? some established trust?

-- How can you disagree with a stranger that you're speaking with for the first time, in a virtual meeting?

-- Would it help if the host/facilitator can remind everyone of the gathering's 'disagreement protocol' and the fact that disagreements are allowed?

-- What if there is too much disagreement? Is there such a thing? Even if done in a positive way can it make the entire gathering feel negative in some way?

-- How can a host facilitate discussions so that everyone feels encouraged to share their stories and real experiences?

-- What else? Are there other rules of engagement that would allow for conversations filled with candor and openness?

I'm writing to share observations and raise questions. I don't have the answers. But curious to explore because I'd like to get to know other members of online communities as real people and not a collection of abstract talking points.


*This tweet suggests some principles, shared by BW from my writing circle: