Appendix: Handling Emotionally Charged Disagreements

Seven Strategies to Encourage Critical Thinking

We live in politically polarized times. For a democracy to function, we must be able to have difficult conversations about values issues. Telling someone they are wrong, makes them defensive and is likely to shut down critical thinking and evoke reactance (the feeling that our behavioral freedoms are being resticted) which encourages motivated reasoning (emotionally-based reasoning that favors concusions that we want to believe). When we use motivated reasoning...

  • we give ourselves permission to believe something if we can simply find one piece of evidence or one argument to support our beliefs and
  • we convince ourselves that it is a restriction on our personal freedom to be forced to believe something that we do not want to believe.

Instead, we must use approaches that build trust and facilitate critical thinking. Otherwise, we might spend unproductive hours talking past each each other while getting increasingly agitated. Motivated reasoning tends to cause us to reinforce rather than question our ideas. The goal of discussion around contraversial values issues is to make decisions in accord with our values guided by factual information about the issue. We must think critically and with clarity about our values and the facts.

Listen and be curious about a person's point-of-view and experience. Have some humility about the correctness of your position and you are likely to learn a lot about the experiences of the person you disagree with. People on opposite sides of an issue hold positions that make sense in the context of their information diet and values.

Put points of disagreement in the form of questions that lead a person through the steps of critical thinking. People are less defensive if asked to respond to a sincere question. Moreover, the person answering the questions will often discover the holes in their own thinking for themselves. Self-discovery is more likely to unseat uncritical thinking because it does not evoke reactance. The following are examples of such questions.

1. Find points of agreement to get people with opposing opinions on the same team. This builds trust, which predisposes the parties to listen to each other and softens blows of disagreement. This approach clearly draws lines between where the parties agree and disagree. By establishing shared values, differences in assumptions and mental models become clear and easier to accept. Facilitators can explicitly ask participants to compare and contrast their views with those of others. Common ground inquiry can be especially powerful for enhancing listening among adversaries who might otherwise tend to dismiss one another's views summarily.7 Given such a relationship, the facilitator can attempt with gentle insistence to engage participants in expansive social role-taking, asking students to make conjectures about others' points of view, in the sense of generating sympathetically constructive reasons for holding those differing positions. The point of this strategy is to nurture understanding, not necessarily consensus. Understanding through social role-taking is an essential part of developing an informed position and, as research indicates,8 a necessary precondition to developing a fully reasoned moral position. For example,

  • "In what ways is your view similar to that of...?"
  • "State one thing on this topic that you think I do not believe." Writer Scott Adams calls this 'The Magic Question' for its miraculous power to diffuse disagreements by starting a discussion that debunk stereotype assumptions.9

2. Identify and evaluate information that has uncertain truth value. The answer will lead to a critical examination of facts. If facts are found to have questionable truth value, all parties should agree that this information cannot be used in the discussion. However, such information can be used to explore hypothetical "what if" scenarios to explore how participants apply their values.

  • "Where did you get that information?"
  • "We cannot verify that your fact is true. How different would your judgment be if it were or were not true? How do your values cause your judgment to change based on this fact?"

3. Identify central values conflicts. Judging which values should be upheld in specific situations presumes, at minimum, clearly recognizing the particular values in conflict. Build a common vocabulary on the board for describing values. Lockwood and Harris describe eight central values: authority, equality, liberty, life, loyalty, promise keeping, property, and truth.4 Explicitly identifying these values can set the stage for systematic and productive discussion.

4. Compare values justifications. Extends general probes of participants' reasoning by asking them to explicitly to address the heart of the conflict: Why do they give greater importance to some values than to others in the case under discussion? For example,

  • "Why in a specific case are property rights more important than the government's duty to provide a genuinely adequate minimum quality of material life?"

5. Raise comments to the level of general principle. Ask participants to consider whether the particular priorities identified in one case should be generalized into a set of principles to guide actions in similar cases. Posing analogous or slightly modified cases can help students test their tentative general principles. For example,

  • "In the case of Anne Frank, do you think it is always or ever right to lie to save a human life? Why?"
  • "If it were right to lie to save a relative's life, would it also be right to lie to save a friend, stranger, or enemy? If so, why? If not, what is the relevant moral difference?"

6. Examine implications and values. One major source of public controversy is the ambiguity associated with predicting or controlling the actual consequences of policy decisions. A second is the difficulty of achieving consensus on the meaning of generally cherished values such as equality, justice, loyalty, and the common good. This is the case in part because there the very definitions of these terms lack universality—are prescriptive and value-based rather than descriptive in nature. Uncover implicit value positions by probing to clarify the meaning of terms used by participants.

  1. "What would it look like if your idea played out?" Examine both reasoning and implications. This question alone is very powerful and may need no follow-up. However, you can then ask to focus on values.
  2. "How do you define 'loyalty' or 'justice'?" In cases of disputed facts, predictions, or meanings of terms, stipulating can provide a sharpened focus on value issues when evaluating consequences.
  3. "If we say the effects will be ... and/or define loyalty as ..., how does that affect your view as to what is the right policy or action?"

7. Identify barriers between Should and Would. Ideally, we want participants to only make informed and reasoned private judgments but, when appropriate, to act publicly in accordance with those judgments. In other words, we all have a civic interest in whether a citizen would act in particular situations as we think persons should act. In probing the relationship between should and would, facilitators might be alert to participants' concerns about incurring the charge of hypocrisy. If the personal level appears initially too threatening, facilitators may ask questions at a generalized level.

  • "Are there factors that might interfere with persons' doing what they think should be done? How might a person deal with these factors constructively?"


Agree to disagree. During any argument, I keep the advice of Neil deGrasse Tyson in the back of my mind, "If an argument lasts more than five minutes, both sides are wrong." At some point, if no progress is being made toward understanding, both parties must let go of trying to be "right" and accept that they disagree.10 A failure to make further progress occurs when there is either (1) insufficient information to evaluate the stronger argument, (2) at least one party is unwilling to abandon a long-held assumption, (3) at least one party is talking past the other to make a different point and isn't actually listening to the other, or (4) the two positions are equally valid within different value systems. Either way, it's best to move on to a more fruitful question of inquiry. At minimum, if both parties have made some progress in understanding each other's values, arguments, and points-of-view in such a way that they respect the other's perspectives, then it was a valuable discussion.

We have to accept that other people have different values. Often in life, all we can do is respectfully clarify points of agreement and disagreement. From there we must decide what we are willing to accept and what we wish to change. If we want to change minds and persuade people to our positions and values, it will rarely happen in one conversation. It will never happen by disrespecting the people we disagree with. Respect the humanity and dignity of those you disagree with, engage with them and their ideas, and you will be most likely to find convergence of thought.