Agreeing to Disagree: How It Can Harm Your Friendship
Let’s talk about agreeing to disagree.
First, let’s define it: when we discover a topic in a relationship that we do not agree on, a sensitive issue where we find discomfort in our failure to find common ground, we often retreat. Instead of engaging in difficult conversations, we decide to avoid the topic entirely. We agree to disagree.
Agreeing to disagree builds a wall between us. With the topic essentially declared off-limits, respectful dialogue is impossible. It is delusion to believe that we can constantly side-step an entire topic and still see intimacy grow in the other areas of our shared lives. The relationship will always revolve around the elephant in the room, leading us to eventually avoid one another altogether.
To be clear, the goal is not agreement. The goal is intentional listening and being heard.
In an interview printed in Braving the Wilderness by Dr. Brene Brown, Dr. Michelle Buck of Northwestern University says, “when we avoid certain conversations, and never fully learn how the other person feels about all of the issues, we sometimes end up making assumptions that not only perpetuate but deepen misunderstandings, and that can generate resentment…”.
On the flip-side, she says, “Imagine that… after a meaningful conversation, two people could actually have increased mutual understanding, greater mutual respect, and better connection, but still completely disagree. This is very different from avoiding a conversation and not learning more about the other party”.
Mutual respect, mutual understanding, all birthed from a mutual commitment to civility and leaning into one another. This benefits every relationship we have, but it is absolutely essential in a friendship we hope will deepen over time.
Taking the limits off the topics we are willing to discuss takes the limits off the ways our hearts will grow toward one another in love. It requires us to lay down our weapons, our vilification of one another, come out from our echo chambers, and willingly stand in someone else’s shoes. It requires love, goodness, gentleness, long-suffering, peacemaking, kindness at the heart level, and unshakable joy.
But man, while it looks so good on paper, it can be so difficult to live out. Disagreeing on something and being willing to hear out and empathize with another’s pain on the subject falls outside my comfort zone. But stepping outside our own comfort is precisely the level of humility required of us who love Jesus. It takes humility to stay in the conversation.
Pastor and theologian Tim Keller, in his outstanding book, Uncommon Ground, puts it like this, “The gospel removes pride, probably the greatest barrier to a sensitive yet clear exchange of ideas. It tells us we are sinners saved only by God’s grace, not because we are wiser or better than anyone. It tells us that we must never think we are beyond sin and the need for repentance and renewal. There’s the humility we need”.
All this said, I do not believe we have to be in a rush to mine the depths of every difficult topic in our closest relationships. Growing in love takes time, and the time it takes is a gift. We do not need to be anxious in making the friendship grow; we can be “patiently willing” in our pace of hearing one another out. And we can be ready, with soft hearts, when we find an area where it’s time to do the hard work.
I also do not believe we need to have every topic on the table in every relationship. That spells disaster. And for this introvert with highly limited energy, it spells exhaustion. I already hide when the doorbell or phone rings. Declaring open season in every human interaction would require me to slip quietly into a new life on a remote island. (You think I’m kidding. My husband knows I’m serious, so don’t try me).
Here is the simple challenge I see: we cannot agree to disagree and shut down the possibility of future discussion with someone with whom we hope the friendship will grow deeper and richer. I think it does us service to realize that in agreeing to disagree, we are deciding that this particular relationship has reached its climax. And if we prefer it hadn’t, it’s time for a renewed commitment to vulnerability, listening with humility, and hope.