You Should Know How to Disagree Well

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes.

As online debate becomes more and more common I’ve been observing how hard it is for two people to have an effective dialogue without being face-to-face. (Not that all face-to-face debates go well either!) I want to offer several dialogue tips to help you have more effective dialogues in any medium.

Authors note: The embedded image in this post contains very mild language, and the article I’m linking to has language as well.

It’s not always easy to tell why a given online exchange goes badly. Sometimes it just feels like nothing is being accomplished, even if the debaters aren’t antagonistic toward each other.

I think sometimes this is because online debaters are too direct with each other. A significant portion of communication happens nonverbally, and that is all lost online. In my experience, you need to add some niceties and hefty doses of common ground to keep an online dialogue from ending with people just getting angry at each other.

This is too direct.

This is too direct.

But sometimes something else gets in the way, and I think most of the time, one or both people are not disagreeing well. I stumbled upon a wonderful essay by Paul Graham on different ways to disagree with people, in their order of effectiveness. You should read the entire essay, (language warning,) but I’ll summarize it here.

Graham says there is a “disagreement hierarchy” with seven levels, which he illustrates with this pyramid:

The bottom levels are the most common, especially on places like YouTube where commenters just scream (or type in ALL CAPS) at each other, and the top level is the most effective.

I think I see people simply contradicting each other the most often. Instead of responding to the persons argument, they lazily reply by restating what the opposite view is. People on both sides of the abortion debate do this all the time.

Pro-Life Person: What do you think about abortion?
Pro-Choice Person: I think abortion should be legal because of the terrible things that would happen to women since dangerous abortions would keep happening underground.
Pro-Life Person: Well, abortion’s wrong because it stops a beating heart.


Pro-Choice Person: Why are you trying to make abortion illegal?
Pro-Life Person: I think elective abortion should be illegal because it kills a living, human organism, and I think all human beings deserve an equal right to life because human beings are intrinsically valuable regardless of what they can do functionally.
Pro-Choice Person: Well, abortion should be legal. There’s too many poor people that need abortions right now.

Clearly this method of disagreement is unpersuasive to everybody involved.

Dialogue Tip:

Rise to the challenge of refuting the person’s central point, and if you aren’t prepared to do that, try something crazy: Blow the persons mind by saying, “That’s an interesting point. Let me think about that for a while. Could I email you a few thoughts later?” This is actually a win-win scenario. It prevents you from putting your foot in your mouth or just frustrating the other person, AND it shows you are taking their argument seriously. I would almost suggest doing this occasionally even if you already have a refutation ready. Why? People aren’t used to having their arguments taken seriously anymore. Pro-life people should be breaking down that paradigm.  [Tweet this!]

I strongly encourage you to read Graham’s short essay explaining the different levels of disagreement.

I’ll leave you with my favorite quote from the end of the piece:

You don’t have to be mean when you have a real point to make. In fact, you don’t want to. If you have something real to say, being mean just gets in the way.  [Tweet this]

Question: Have you had a frustrating debate recently? Which of the levels of disagreement was the person using? For bonus points, tell me a story about you using one of the bottom four levels of disagreement.


Josh Brahm is the President of Equal Rights Institute, an organization that trains pro-life advocates to think clearly, reason honestly and argue persuasively.

Josh has worked in the pro-life movement since he was 18. A sought-after speaker, Josh has spoken for more than 23,000 people in six countries and in 22 of the 50 states.

Josh’s primary passion is helping pro-life people to be more persuasive when they communicate with pro-choice people. That means ditching faulty rhetoric and tactics and embracing arguments that hold up under philosophical scrutiny.

He has publicly debated leaders from Planned Parenthood, the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), Georgians for Choice, and one of the leading abortion facilities in Atlanta.

Josh also wants to bring relational apologetics to the pro-life movement. “Some pro-choice people will not change their mind after one conversation on a college campus. Some of them will only change their mind after dozens of conversations with a person they trust in the context of friendship.”

Josh is formerly the host of a globally-heard podcast turned radio/TV show, Life Report. He now hosts the Equipped for Life Podcast. He’s also written dozens of articles for and the ERI blog.

He directed the first 40 Days for Life campaign in Fresno, resulting in up to 60 lives saved.

Josh has been happily married to his wife, Hannah, for 15 years. They have three sons, Noah, William, and Eli. They live in Charlotte, North Carolina.

David Bereit, the National Director of 40 Days for Life, sums up Josh’s expertise this way: “Josh Brahm is one of the brightest, most articulate, and innovative people in the pro-life movement. His cutting-edge work is helping people think more clearly, communicate more effectively, and — most importantly — be better ambassadors for Christ. I wholeheartedly endorse Josh’s work, and I encourage you to join me in following Josh and getting involved in his work today!”

Please note: The goal of the comments section on this blog is simply and unambiguously to promote productive dialogue. We reserve the right to delete comments that are snarky, disrespectful, flagrantly uncharitable, offensive, or off-topic. If in doubt, read our Comments Policy.