How to Disagree with Civility

The Value of Civility

As the year progresses and classmates get to know each other, discussions become more free-flowing, relaxed, and casual. This is a good thing! As shyness melts away, students begin to engage more readily in conversation and debate, exchanging ideas, opinions and knowledge in class and on forums. This kind of interaction is one of the best things Kolbe’s Online Academy has to offer.

As students become more familiar with their classmates, and in some cases develop friendships with them, they must nonetheless remain dedicated to maintaining a high level of civility and respect. Only if we remain charitable in our discourse will we be able to maintain a supportive environment where everyone feels comfortable speaking up, where everyone feels that his or her opinion is valued. This does not mean there is no room for disagreement or argument. The key is how we disagree and how we argue. (Remember that “arguing” in this sense is not the same as “fighting.” It is possible to argue without hostility.)

Don’t be Tone-Deaf!

Students must pay special attention to how they are communicating, especially when using written communication. When we speak aloud, the other person has the benefit of hearing our inflection and tone and sometimes of seeing our facial expressions and body language. A statement that would sound rude on paper can be considerably softened when delivered vocally. Tone is everything! Think about the phrase, “Excuse me.” Imagine how you would say that phrase differently if you were trying to convey the following messages and emotions:

  • Could you repeat that? I didn’t hear you. (Politeness)
  • Could you scoot your chair up? I can’t quite get by. (Request)
  • Hold on. What did you just say to me? (Anger and disbelief)
  • Well, you didn’t have to get so mad and blow up at me. (Hurt, confusion)
  • Oh, I’m so sorry for bumping into you. (Apology)

This just goes to show that when we write, we leave a lot open to interpretation! Now imagine someone just got bumped into and that person responds, switching one word: “Excuse you.” With that one word, we now have a sarcastic attitude.

Fact vs. Opinion

It is possible to convey tone in writing, though it is not as easy as when we are speaking. The words we use can make all the difference.  Here are some guidelines to help keep yourself in check and assure that even when things become less formal, they never become less friendly.

  1. First, remember the difference between a fact and an opinion. Be aware of whether you are stating a fact or expressing an opinion; and if you disagree with someone, try to figure out if that person is stating a fact or expressing an opinion. This should determine how you approach the conversation!
  1. If Bob is stating a fact, Bob might be more confident and straightforward in his delivery than if he were stating an opinion.

Bob: “Hera is the wife of Zeus.”

Let’s say Noelle doesn’t believe that this is true. Noelle would not want to reply to Bob by saying: “No, she’s not.” That would lead to a contentious and perhaps silly argument. Noelle would do better to politely challenge Bob by asking him for “evidence” of his position. If there is a disagreement over facts, it is not a time to argue: it is a time to investigate!

Noelle: “Bob, could you tell me where you got the idea that Hera is the wife of Zeus? I would like to know because I was under the impression that Themis is the wife of Zeus.”

Ideally, Bob would not get defensive; instead Bob would see it as a chance to help Noelle by clearing up an area of confusion.

The Proof of the Pudding is in the Eating

Now in this case Bob might say that he read it on page 74. Noelle would review Bob’s “evidence” with an open mind. Then she might present her own. In this case, they would realize that, yes, indeed Hera and Themis are both described as wives of Zeus; upon further investigation they might find that he had even more, which leads to the next tip…

  1. Keep in mind that it is possible for two people to be right even though they might seem to be saying different things. In this example, both Bob and Noelle are right because Zeus had more than one wife.
  1. Keep in mind that it is possible for someone to be right and wrong at the same time! Bob and Noelle were both right in that “their” goddess was a wife of Zeus, but they were both partially wrong in saying that “their” goddess was “the” wife of Zeus, because Zeus had more than one wife. (See how one word can make all the difference?)
  1. Never assume that your knowledge is total and complete. Socrates was the wisest man in ancient Athens and he said, “All I know is that I know nothing.”
  1. Be more concerned with being humble than being right. Remain cool, calm, and objective. The goal is not to “win” (the argument) but to learn (unless you are in debate class). There is a lot we can learn from each other.
  1. Appreciate classmates who care enough about the subject to challenge or question you! Think about it: if Noelle hadn’t confronted Bob about his statement, they both would have been worse off. They both walked away with more knowledge than they had before, because she was willing to ask him a question.
  1. There are some words and phrases that can help you to convey an attitude of humility, goodwill and respect even when you are challenging someone’s “facts” and/or launching an “investigation”:
  • It was my understanding that…
  • Then what do you make of…
  • I’m curious about how/why/where…
  • Where did you find/see…
  • Could you explain where you got…
  • Could you point me to the place in the book where…
  • Where did you learn that?
  • That surprises me because…
  • I wonder if…

Disagreeing Civilly

  1. If two students find themselves expressing two different and conflicting opinions, that might be a good time for an investigation and an argument. To keep the tone civil when expressing opinions, it can be helpful to use some key words and phrases such as:
  • In my opinion…
  • The way I see it…
  • It struck me as…
  • It seems to me that…
  • I interpreted that to mean…
  • Yes, I see where you’re coming from. But how do you explain…
  • If that were true, then I would think that…
  • Yes, but on the other hand…
  • That does make a certain amount of sense, but when you consider…
  • I agree with ….but I disagree with….
  • I think you might be putting too much emphasis on…
  • I think you might be overlooking…
  • When I was reading it, I thought….
  • I disagree because…
  • I’m not quite convinced because…
  1. Concessions can help you. Rather than digging in your heels and disregarding or rejecting everything someone else is saying, be wise enough and humble enough to acknowledge where they are right. You might not agree with them completely, but that doesn’t mean you have to disagree with them completely.

Bob: “I think The Odyssey is better than The Iliad because it has a wider variety of situations and characters throughout the book, which made it entertaining.”

Noelle: “I agree that The Odyssey was more varied and entertaining, but literature has to feel realistic to me and true to human life. I found The Iliad to be more believable, even if it got a bit slow at times. I liked it more, because I was more affected by it.”

Good luck as you continue practicing the skill of artful discourse!