Achieving disagreement

talkingFirst, why would one want to “achieve disagreement”? Don’t we have enough disagreements already in our churches and society? Actually, we don’t. What we have, most of the time, are competing public monologues… This is not real disagreement; this is a shouting match.   –Alan Wisdom

I learned about a new concept over the weekend while listening to the NPR program, On Being. The panelists talked about “achieving disagreement” – the idea that you can’t authentically disagree until you have fully listened to the others’ side and understand the legitimacy of their viewpoints. They were discussing a very contentious and divisive issue, and doing it in a respectful and productive way.

The quote above comes from this article by Presbyterian author Alan Wisdom. While the idea of achieving disagreement comes out of civil and religious movements, it relates to authentic leadership in higher education as well. We have our own set of contentious issues, and often have difficulty working collaboratively to move forward on mutual goals.  How might things be different if we:

  • Understood the areas where we agree, as well as where we disagree
  • Recognized how the other parties came to their conclusions
  • Could respond to the others’ arguments from their point of view
  • Could focus on the legitimate differences in judgment and perception that led to our differing positions

A comment from the radio program struck me as particularly relevant to authentic leadership. The speaker talked about doubt, which he defined as “believing you may not be right, even when your argument is passionately  held.” You can hear an excerpt here.

This stance goes against our U.S. culture and our commonly-held definition of leadership. Don’t leaders need to be decisive and firm in their chosen actions? Yes, but like many other leadership traits, it needs balance. Holding space for doubt is one way to lead authentically.

Achieving disagreement may be the first step in the productive dialogue that we badly need in higher education. How have you seen this play out where you work?

Dee Anne Bonebright

 

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