Graceful disagreement involves engaging in a discussion to learn more, refine ideas, consolidate and extend understanding, and reach qualified consensus on an issue. It is undertaken by two or more people interested in developing their understanding, both willing to change their mind in the face of constructive argument. Graceful disagreement involves collaboration between people who take mutual responsibility for the outcomes of the discussion. There is space to ask questions and offer tentative responses. The focus remains on the issue at hand and does not deviate unnecessarily. Accountability is maintained without invoking shame, blame, or guilt. Open-mindedness is valued; there is a willingness to change one’s mind.

The ways in which people disagree are important. Choices of language and syntax, formality and tone all contribute or detract from such a space. For graceful disagreement to occur, the disagreement needs to be framed constructively, rather than antagonistically or bombastically.

Graceful disagreement cannot occur when any person enters the discussion to win, or to “prove” wrong the opposing point(s) of view. It is not in the spirit of graceful disagreement to:

  • make unqualified statements
  • refuse to define the premises or assumptions of the discussion
  • manipulate, twist, or misrepresent another’s argument, or use ambiguity to confuse or obfuscate
  • ask loaded questions, or ‘beg the question’
  • shift the goalposts
  • present a false dichotomy, or take the middle ground
  • shift the burden of proof
  • cherry-pick evidence or data
  • refuse to engage with constructive critique of an argument
  • deliberately use logical fallacies to make a point
  • invoke shame, blame, or guilt
  • suppress opportunities for either person to change their mind

I do not enjoy disagreements with people that make use of such strategies.

I’ve been learning to disagree ‘gracefully’ over the past few years as I have incorporated socioscientific argumentation into the courses I am teaching. I believe that I’m more thoughtful and constructive now about the ways I interact with others when we disagree, and this has led to those involved in our class discussions gaining a deeper understanding of issues. Graceful disagreement has allowed me the space to change my mind, or led to others changing theirs. For me, such open-mindedness is a valuable trait to be nurtured and grown. I don’t always get it right, but I can say I am trying.