Agreeing to Disagree

I had an odd moment yesterday when reading a couple of posts on a national listserv.  Someone had originally asked for ideas on improving a library service. The poster finished the inquiry with the phrase "All ideas are welcome".  However, when someone replied with an idea, the original poster stated that she very much disagreed with the idea. It was a jarring realization for me - perhaps all ideas were not welcome.

It struck me that this is the kind of reply that shuts down ideas, that says thanks for the input- but not really.  If I had an idea to contribute, would my opinion be welcomed....or disrespected? I definitely felt a strong urge to keep my ideas to myself on this issue. Who needs to be put in their place after four months or forty years in the business?

This is by no means the first time I have seen this behavior. You name the issue in librarianship and you know a few people are going to wade in, say their piece (on any and all sides of an issue), lob a few bombs and shut down discussion.  Others shy away from saying anything lest they be branded a less-than-true believer or flaming the fan of disagreement even further.  The bomber has accomplished something that, in most cases, I hope they didn't mean to do - they have effectively  shut down discourse.

The townhall of listservs, groups, online discussions and comments seems to be more and more a place where one gets to state their opinion and then re-state and re-state it and re-state it. Each time a particular topic comes up that someone disagrees with vehemently, he or she feels duty-bound to wade in and state for the record just how wrong-headed the idea, approach or opinion is. Reasoned discourse devolves into "This is my opinion and if you don't like it, bite it." or "I have the research, so shaddup." or "Lots of people feel/think/believe the same way I do, which proves me correct."

We all have strongly held opinions - both personal and professional. We would be less than human if we didn't. And what a boring world if we all believed exactly the same thing! It strikes me that innovation would simply stop if we didn't have the constant give-and-take of divergent opinions to push us to new solutions and heights.

How we express our opinions dictates whether we will brook no disagreement or are willing to evolve, change and learn from the discourse engendered by our expressions and inquiries.  When I work with students, respect and reasoned discourse is the guide by which we agree to disagree. Once we hit the work world, spats and tantrums must be left behind.  Learning to elevate opinion and conversation into a respectful space takes patience, wisdom and smarts.

While I certainly own to being less than perfect in expressing my opinions and honoring those of other people, perhaps there are a few ways we might all navigate better when asking for input and honoring what we receive. Let's think of it as bringing some civility to our professional-level discourse - welcoming, listening to and absorbing divergent viewpoints without disrespecting opinions or ideas that are diametrically opposed to our own.

Strangely or not so much so, I am guided by the best set of book discussion guidelines ever. The CCBC (Cooperative Children's Book Center in Madison WI) developed these to help people speak and listen actively and intelligently. Book discussion committees that use these guidelines have an amazing experience when discussing books.

So let's look at these and see if there are ways we can use some of these suggestions to do a better job of respecting each other while expressing our firmly held beliefs. Try substituting the word "issue" for "book" in the Guidelines and see what we get:

CCBC Book Discussion Guidelines
Ginny Moore Kruse and Kathleen T. Horning
© 1989 Cooperative Children's Book Center
Look at each book (issue) for what it is, rather than what it is not.
  1. Make positive comments first. Try to express what you liked about the book (issue) and why. (e.g. "The illustrations are a perfect match for the story because....")

  2. After everyone has had the opportunity to say what they appreciated about the book (issue), you may talk about difficulties you had with a particular aspect of the book (issue). Try to express difficulties as questions, rather than declarative judgments on the book (issue) as a whole. (e.g. "Would Max's dinner really have still been warm?" rather than "That would never happen.")

  3. Avoid recapping the story or booktalking the book (issue). There is not time for a summary.

  4. Refrain from relating personal anecdotes. The discussion must focus on the book (issue) at hand.

  5. Try to compare the book (issue) with others on the discussion list, rather than other books by the same author or other books in your experience.
All perspectives and vocabularies are correct. There is no "right" answer or single correct response.
  1. Listen openly to what is said, rather than who says it.

  2. Respond to the comments of others, rather than merely waiting for an opportunity to share your comments.

  3. Talk with each other, rather than to the discussion facilitator.

  4. Comment to the group as a whole, rather than to someone seated near you.
Sometimes, it's also ok to accept an idea or opinion without responding to state a disagreement. Our opinion isn't changed but no response also honors the fact that the other person has a right to theirs. Learning to express our views with an eye towards engendering discussion often involves phrases like, "While I appreciate what you are saying, I wonder whether..." or "I hear what you're saying, but my hesitation lies in....". It opens up communication and creates a safe space to express and share.

I wonder if we might commit to be more open, less combative and elevate our discussions with each other? Can we honor the ideas others share while tactfully expressing our own and even learning to moderate our opinions based on what we hear? Can we put down our arms and learn to disagree in a collegial way? As Eli Mina, the ALA Council parliamentarian, suggests in Council when tempers begin to flare and back-and-forthing detours councilors from the larger issues of working towards solutions: Let us return to the balcony in this discussion rather than staying on the floor. I wonder if we can do this more?

I don't know, you tell me.

Image courtesy of Pixabay


  1. Well said, Marge. I think it is OK for the original poster in your first paragraph to very much disagree with the person who posted, BUT, as you say later on, with your CCBC examples, I believe one can disagree without being disagreeable. It is when we listen to those with a different viewpoint that we really learn something, not when we just keep hearing our own thoughts and ideas echoed back to us.

  2. Thanks Cheryl. While flame wars may forever be with us, I am trying to remind myself as well not to redline so quickly!

  3. I know exactly what you're talking about -- I had a similar reaction to that same listserv. At first I thought I was taking the dismissal personally, given the issue at hand, but I still had trouble with what was said even after taking my personal feelings into account.

    You've hit exactly what was frustrating to read: "All ideas are welcome" and yet, an idea was immediately shut-down. A simple, "Thank you for the thought, I appreciate it, but our library has decided not to move in that direction" would have been just as effective, without losing the chance for a dialogue to continue. I feel like I don't want to respond with anything else since I might be dismissed as well.

    I've spent at least twenty minutes reading and re-reading both the original interactions and your post, trying to wrap my head around how we can better disagree, but also how we can better communicate in general. Those discussion guidelines are wonderful, and a great help in remembering how to be cordial to one another, no matter the circumstances.

    1. I don't know if this "trash-and-burn" kind of mentality that is really out there nationally also kind of kick-started me on this whole thing...but I found it profoundly disturbing and very sad for our profession when I read the exchange. And nothing in the post for the idea offered was at all inflammatory. It felt like someone is walking along whistling a tune, and somebody in an SUV who detests the song, runs the person down. Gack!