Peter Blanken: How to have better discussions – the art of thoughtful disagreement

* Peter Blanken: How to have better discussions – the art of thoughtful disagreement.

How to have better discussions — the art of thoughtful disagreement

Peter Blanken, Medium, 17 Jan 2018


”When two people believe opposing things, chances are that one of them is wrong. It pays to find out if that someone is you”

That quote is from Ray Dalio, the founder and Grand Poobah at Bridgewater Associates, the largest hedge fund in the world and a successful billionaire entrepreneur.

Dalio likes to develop the idea of thoughtful disagreement, in which the goal is not to convince the opposite party that you are right, but simply to find out which view is true and then what to do about it. It’s about engaging in an exchange where, as Dr. Stephen Covey in his 7 principles of Highly Effective People explained, ”you seek first to understand and then to be understood”.

Both parties must be motivated by a genuine fear of missing important perspectives. In such a situation it is about exploring the truth and not simply arguing. Or ”winning” the argument.

In reality, the winners of an argument, if there is such a thing, are those who leave the discussion having learned something. Whereas the losers are those who stubbornly cling to their thoughts, beliefs and reasoning without having given any consideration to the others’ point of view.

Losers are also those who engage in incessant monologues without giving space to the other party to express their views.

As Dalio points out, ”to me, it’s pointless when people get angry with each other when they disagree because most disagreements aren’t threats as much as opportunities for learning.”

Does that mean that you should blindly accept others’ conclusions?
Absolutely not!

You should be open-minded and assertive at the same time. Cultivate an ability to hold and explore conflicting alternatives in your mind and adjusting what you consider to be true based on how the conversation builds up. You learn, evaluate, eliminate in order to build towards what is most likely to be true.

Often discussions get heated and lead to opposing and conflicting positions. But disagreement is not conflict, or should not be. It is easy to see how being able to thoughtfully disagree would lead to radically improved decision making.

What is interesting is that, being from a multi-cultural European background, I very frequently see how this plays out depending on the origins of the parties involved. Often, discussions get more heated with people from the south of Europe, considered more ”hot-blooded”, than people from the North, more ”cold-blooded”. And, being from the North, I admit that I still find it difficult to accept when discussions turn into shouting matches and posturing around ”who’s right”.

Then again, I hate stereotypes and am convinced that seeing this purely as an in-born reaction is erroneous. The way you listen and react to situations is a learned habit or attitude. You can influence and change your behavior, you can learn to listen and decide how you will react.

As Dalio states, ”holding wrong opinions in one’s head and making bad decisions based on them instead of having thoughtful disagreements is one of the greatest tragedies of mankind.”

For sure, this requires open-mindedness, and the ability to stand apart from yourself in order to analyse the thoughts and reasoning of others dispassionately.

Never forget that you are looking for the best answer overall, not simply the best answer you can come up with yourself.


The next time you find yourself in a discussion seemingly not leading towards agreement or resolution, consider this notion of thoughtful disagreement. Try to stand apart from the discussion. Hold you tongue and go through these 3 steps:

  1. Listen with intent, meaning that you seek to understand the other person’s viewpoint first and foremost.
  2. Take into consideration how believable the other person is. I wrote about believability here.
  3. Find points of agreement and build on those. Determine points of disagreement and focus on clarifying them.

Stay open to the notion that if the 2 ideas are opposing, and one of them could be wrong, there is actually a possibility the person having it wrong is you.

You might also consider sharing this methodology with the ”opposing” party and see if that improves the quality of the exchange.

The goal should not be to bludgeon the other into accepting your views, but to leave the disagreement smarter that when you started and that this leads to improved decision making and a harmonious conclusion.