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Dancing with Disagreement

A person does not have to be particularly gifted to be able to make disagreements worse. On the other hand, to stay with disagreement long enough to create an opportunity for constructive engagement requires considerable skill and thoughtfulness. Let us look at a straightforward approach to engaging with disagreement, especially when disagreement appears overwhelming.

The Conflict Spiral

In the present climate in higher education, it takes about the time of a single breath for conflict to spiral, sometimes beyond recovery. In a classic work on conflict transformation, John Paul Lederach draws a picture of what the conflict spiral looks like. It looks like a Slinky toy. Things move forward, movement stops, things move backwards, and then things collapse. Then, the cycle repeats itself, so this circle becomes the Slinky, or conflict spiral.

A modern way to engage in a conflict spiral is to sometimes say or act in a dramatic, escalating manner. In modern conflict theory, the purpose of being outrageous or inflammatory can be performative. The underlying thought is that it is not the other person’s action that matters, but it is all about your reaction.    Because you do not know if the escalation is performative or not, it is better to begin with a view that the other person is expressing things that are legitimate and worthy of respect. Engaging in escalating conflict is not pugilistic, it is more like a dance, close emotionally and more intimate than dialogue at a distance. How do you dance with the other person long enough to know how to react? Let us look at a rubric you can use in a conflict spiral, and some visualization techniques, and finally a way to de-escalate the discourse when possible. There are only three things to know and then to understand how to use them consistently and predictably. There is safety is simplicity of approach.

Ask Questions

When the conflict spiral begins, it is good practice to ask questions first. To do so, you need to have a perspective of receptiveness. If you do not have this thought pattern normally, it is quite trainable. An easy word to trigger the first question is to be curious. When I say to myself the word, curious, I am prompting a thoughtful engagement.

It is good practice to ask three questions initially. If you ask only one question, you will often think you know something about the other person’s views, when you do not. If you ask five or more questions you will begin to appear annoying to many people. So, ask three questions. A straightforward way to remember the process is to think of who, what, where, why, and how questions. In today’s environment, “why” is not a good question. It will lead to a response to shuts of dialogue with a response of “because” without further explanation.

You can also use visualization. Imagine what happens when you ask a question when the other person is escalating conflict. A question causes the other person to have to pause and think before responding. Visually, you are pushing them away for a bit, which may feel safer for you.

Make Statements

Let us say you have asked three questions. You may feel you have enough information to make a statement. The statement should be direct and with simple nouns and verbs as the default. And, in today’s climate in higher education, you should avoid strong positions. Something like, “I don’t see this the same way you do.” Depending on the response to your statement, you may want to go back to asking questions. If you do, take a quick moment to ask yourself, “What am I missing here?”  Or, as Monica Guzman suggests, “I never thought of it that way.” Then, repeat the questions and statements again until you have a reasonable understanding of what the other person is saying and what they mean by how they say what they believed.

There is a particular form of response to your statement that you should be prepared for and anticipate. For me, I like to think of the response as a “whataboutism.” The other person says something about uncommon occurrences, or often rare experiences. This is really a statement, but it ends with a question mark. The easiest and most resilient way to respond is to simply ask, “And?” You meet the other person’s question, which is really a statement, with a question. This allows you to go back to the narrative approach with some confidence.

You can use visualization, too. A statement says to the other person, no further now. It is simply holding your ground, so the other person needs to find another way around your statement. That amount of time, no matter how brief, may change the nature of the discourse in a manner that allows better engagement with disagreement.

Predict Consequences

You have gone through a few cycles of questions and statements and feel prepared to predict consequences. The time spent asking questions and making statements provides confidence before you predict consequences. The reason this is important is that predicting consequences should be thought of as unassailable as you can handle. If you walk back consequences, you demonstrate you did not understand the other person very well and you appear lacking in confidence in your own convictions.

You can predict consequences that involve you only. “If you continue to scream at me, I am going to stop talking with you.” If the person screams at you again or escalates the conflict spiral, you must walk away emotionally and physically.

See yourself predicting consequences for yourself is like you are pushing the person to the side. Emotionally, this is an effective way to visualize what you are doing. You are not knocking the other person off their feet. You are not allowing the other person to get emotionally closer than you can handle. In fact, you are causing the other person to move laterally from you.

The other person may try to find a way around your prediction. This is always interesting and sometimes surprising. However, you cannot allow the other person to get any closer to you emotionally. A straightforward way to deal with such a tactic is to name it. “It seems to me you are trying to get around what I just told you. I thought I was clear and unambiguous.”

You may want to predict consequences with others. “If you continue to speak or act this way, you are likely to find that a great number of people will simply not listen to you.” In this second form of predicting consequences, you are shifting the narrative away from you and to others. This should not be done in a devious or divisive manner, but it should represent your best understanding of how others will engage with the conflict spiral. The distance provides safety for you and reduces harm to the other person if they will take your prediction of the consequences into consideration.


You can repeat the asking questions, make statements, and predict consequences steps we have discussed repeatedly. If you are curious, humble, and receptive to disagreement, you may well find de-escalation. What I mean here is that you may agree to disagree, or to continue dialogue, or reduce the rigidity of either you are or the other person’s positions or interests. Frankly, it is easy to make things worse. You do not have to be particularly clever to do it. On the other hand, it takes gumption, thoughtfulness, and patience to constructively engage in disagreement. To do this with confidence, you need a simple and easily remembered approach. I hope I have provided that for you.


John Potter

John Potter is an Associate Professor in Dispute Resolution and Conflict Management at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. MORE

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