Different ways we disagree

Guy Lipman
4 min readNov 24, 2020

It is commonly perceived that the world has got a lot more argumentative in recent years. When I was younger, I found arguments extremely hard to cope with. Thankfully, over the years, I’ve got better at dealing with disagreement.

My trick is that when I encounter disagreement, I now recognise that it could arise from any of a number of sources. I ask questions that help me identify which of these are at play (bearing in mind that it may be a mixture). By understanding the source, I am able to distinguish between disagreements that can and should be resolved, and those that are best left alone. This helps at work and in society.

This post lists different ways we disagree, and offers some tips for identifying which are at play and how best to productively resolve the disagreement. Engaging in arguments can be emotionally draining, so these tips may also be helpful in identifying those arguments you are best to avoid.

We disagree for the sake of having a debate

Some people enjoy debating. Arguing with friends can be a fun way to pass time, can help develop reasoning skills and can help you clarify your own thoughts. But make sure it stays enjoyable for both parties (and captive bystanders), otherwise you are better off stopping the argument.

If you are having a ‘fun’ argument, all the sources of disagreement below can still occur, and it can still be useful to diagnose these (though it may ruin the fun of disagreeing). The key difference is that in this kind of an argument, the forcefulness of your opponent’s arguments are likely to exceed their true convictions.

We disagree because our words mean different things

This source of disagreement is incredibly common. The English language is imprecise, and quite often words mean different things to different people. Terms like ‘socialism’ or ‘discrimination’ mean quite different things to different people. I find it helpful to try and avoid these words, coming up with concrete examples that you can agree or disagree on.

Further, even the words that people say, especially in the heat of an argument, quite likely don’t reflect what they mean. We are all prone to exaggerating: if someone says “everyone”, they may just mean “most people”, with which you might agree.

We disagree because we believe different things will come to pass

The future is uncertain, and it is perfectly reasonable for two people to have different views on what will happen. For example, one person may believe that decriminalising drugs will lead to increased use, while another may believe it would lead to addicts seeking help and ultimately reducing their use.

One trick to clarify this kind of disagreement is to identify the uncertainty, and whether, if you agreed with their assessment, you would agree with their conclusion. Perhaps there will be evidence that you can look for to determine if one outlook is more likely. Perhaps you can both accept that either outcome might occur. However, even if you remain in disagreement, you will at least understand why the other person believes what they do.

We disagree because of how we prioritise principles/values

There is a model of decision-making in which we consider all the possible outcomes of each decision, and their likelihoods, and pick the best one. In practice, this approach is impractical: there are far too many unknowns. Instead, we generally use rules of thumb, which may be elevated to the status of principles or values. For example, many people value equality itself, rather than valuing it for the many benefits it might bring.

Different people often disagree on the principles to apply. More commonly, people agree on the principles but prioritise them differently. Where this occurs, it can be extremely difficult to resolve the disagreement. I suggest is working to identify the competing principles, and why the other person may have come to prioritise them differently to you. In some cases, one of the arguers may recognise that their rules of thumb are leading them to the wrong conclusion, but they are less likely to sacrifice strong principles or values.

We disagree out of loyalty to our tribe (or opposition to another)

Quite often we hold a viewpoint, not because we have independently come to believe it, but because it is the viewpoint of our tribe, and we value belonging. Religious beliefs may fall into this category. Where this occurs, I tend not to argue with the person, and try to find ways to allow us to get along despite the disagreement (or avoid them). A common way to recognise this being the case is where we have no real interest in reconsidering the view.

Related to this, we may hold a view, not because it is the view of our tribe, but because it is opposed to the view of another tribe. For example, I am convinced that some people are only opposed to action against climate change because they don’t like the people arguing for it. This can be hard to combat, though it can work to weaken the strength of tribalism, demonstrating the diversity of opinion on both sides.

We disagree because one of us is truly despicable

Far too often, people tend to assume that the reason for the disagreement is that one party is truly despicable, perhaps even evil. In practice, I think this is extremely rare, and all of the alternatives above should be eliminated before we reach this conclusion. If it is the only conceivable conclusion, then you should probably avoid the other person.



Guy Lipman

Fascinated by what makes societies and markets work, especially in sustainable energy. http://guylipman.com. Views not necessarily reflect those of my employer.