Zachary R. Wood is a Columnist and Assistant Opinion Editor at The Guardian, a Robert L. Bartley Fellow at the Wall Street Journal, and the author of Uncensored: My Life and Uncomfortable Conversations at the Intersection of Black and White America. When Uncensored became an Official Selection for the summer season of the Next Big Idea Club, Zach stopped by to offer an exclusive set of insights, one of which we’re proud to share below.
There are many ways to express disagreement. When engaging in difficult conversations, it’s generally best to avoid disputatious claims that involve someone’s identity, character, upbringing, values, and personal feelings. You want to acknowledge those factors insofar as you demonstrate an understanding of them, or what they tell you about them. But you don’t want to disagree in ways that make it feel as if you’re challenging the way in which they view themselves and their beliefs.
For example, I was [once] sitting in a dining hall with a group of friends when one of them brought up the issue of racial preferences in college admissions, and how frustrating it was to him and his family that hard-working students who were not African-American might be disadvantaged by the policy. A student of color quickly replied, “This is about history, man. This is about a history in this country that has left me with all kinds of challenges you will never have to worry about.”
From there, things went downhill. The peer who brought the issue up—and also happened to be white—said, “I think you’re upset because you worry that without affirmative action, your race might suffer.” Things escalated quickly, and each comment made from there was taken as a personal attack.
The key mistake here was that someone presumed to know the feelings of someone else. The wiser approach is always to think before you speak, and ask politely before you assume. Another way to disagree tactfully is to use more delicate formulations to make your points. For example, you could say to someone, “I think I understand where you’re coming from. I see the issue a bit differently,” and then proceed to explain.
Of course, some conversations escalate naturally and lead to energetic debate. In these cases, more vigorous arguments can be useful. The key is not to follow a precise checklist, but instead to make a careful and considerate effort to put thought into how you frame your points in light of what the other person is saying to you.