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Disagreeing Well

The Anglican Schools Australia Conference held in Sydney in August had as its theme ‘Deep Peace’. One of the recurring messages was the need for better listening and communication when discussing conflicting ideas. Dr Michael Spence AC, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sydney spoke on the topic of ‘Listening well’, and Dr Natasha Moore, Research Fellow for the Centre for Public Christianity spoke on ‘Forming students that can love and disagree’. This was also a topic addressed by Dr Donald Guthrie at the Anglican EdComm Christians in Teaching Conference held in May.

Anyone who watches Q & A on the ABC can’t help noticing the hostility directed at those who hold a position contrary to the popular view on issues as diverse as climate change, women’s rights, LGBQTI, the institutional church, politics and independent education. The lack of effort to listen and understand a conflicting perspective is more common now than we could have even imagined ten years ago. There are now cases where invited speakers are being ‘disinvited’ to events because of complaints from those seeking to prevent a contrary view to their own being heard – recent notable and even surprising examples being Germaine Greer and Bob Carr who were to speak at the recent Brisbane Writers Festival.

The noble sentiment 'I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it' (often attributed to Voltaire but actually written by Beatrice Evelyn Hall) seems a long way removed from modern discussion, particularly on social media. The anonymity and immediate access that platforms like email and Twitter provide has enabled more spontaneous and often vitriolic comment to be made than was the case in the past. When did a troll shift from being a character in children’s fantasy books to a predator lurking on the internet?

This raises the question: Has the art of respectfully discussing ideas been lost?

This is certainly an issue for Anglican schools that promote questioning and the discussion of ideas as central to effective learning. How do we create an environment in our schools where ideas can be discussed openly, deeply and respectfully?

This is an issue being addressed at one of our prestigious universities. Dr Michael Spence AC, Vice Chancellor of Sydney University, identifies six characteristics of those that would disagree well:

  • 'An empathetic willingness to listen carefully and be open to the opinions of others;
  • A recognition of the particular expertise and experience of individual participants to a dispute;
  • A recognition of the particular responsibilities within the organisation of any individual participant in the conversation;
  • A choice of language commensurate with the goal of increasing levels of communication and understanding;
  • An orientation towards finding common ground with the other;
  • A desire to identify with some precision those points on which difference exists, rather than to create an ‘enemy’ of the other'.

Dr Spence’s characteristics provide a useful checklist for schools and teachers in assessing the culture in which students learn. A positive learning culture in which ideas are openly and respectfully shared is certainly desirable but increasingly more difficult to create in the context of the hostile environment in which our students live in the virtual world.

Yet the message of Dr Spence, Dr Moore and Dr Guthrie is that deliberate strategies that build positive attitudes toward listening and communicating can deliver a gracious and respectful learning culture where it is safe to share ideas, express an alternative point of view and even disagree well.

Central to this approach are four foundational attitudes: The first three - listen well; maintain an open mind; respect the person – apply to schools in general. The fourth - give reason for the hope you have – has particular application for discussion about the Christian faith.

1. Listen well

'Listen to understand, rather than to gain advantage.'

This advice of Dr Donald Guthrie was echoed by Dr Natasha Moore who described discussion as 'the sharing of ideas, not an attempt to coerce a person to a point of view'. This attitude reflects the character of God who gives us all free will and choice in what we believe and how we live. We should afford the same freedom to those with whom we disagree.

The art of listening well is an acquired skill, particularly in a society where listening well is not widely practised. Hope (2007) identifies six components of good listening:

  • Paying attention – creating a setting for productive dialogue
  • Holding judgement – the intention should be to understand, not coerce
  • Reflecting – restating the other persons position confirms understanding and creates empathy
  • Clarifying – avoids misunderstanding
  • Summarising – demonstrates understanding
  • Sharing – from a position of understanding the other point of view comes the opportunity to share your own ideas

Listening well does not come naturally - it should be taught and nurtured in our schools and classrooms.

2. Maintain an open mind

Dr Moore identified the importance of an open mind, describing respectful discussion with those that hold a contrary point of view as important because:

  1. We may not be right. She reminded us that we are not infallible and that by not engaging in the sharing of ideas could deny us the opportunity to learn. 'All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility.'(J.S.Mill)
  2. We might be right. Engaging with a conflicting point of view is useful in confirming and deepening our understanding of what is right.

Dr Moore warned against the trend toward segregation in our society (suburbs, schools, social groupings, churches, political parties, favourite media outlets, etc) that isolate us from exposure to alternative ideas.

'We only have one remaining bigotry. We don’t want to be with anybody who disagrees with us.' (Bill Clinton)

Our schools should be places where students are exposed to alternative points of view and equipped with the skills necessary to engage with those ideas.

3. Respect the person

A closed mind and an inability to listen well can shift the focus away from the ideas being discussed to the person delivering the ideas. Ideas that are different, challenging, confronting and even frightening necessitate a response. If they can’t be dealt with through discussion then the alternatives are to ignore the ideas or attack the promoter of the ideas.

Sadly, it is the latter that fills TV screens and social media and is being seen as the norm by students in our schools.

The example and teaching of Jesus are instructive in this instance:

'But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.' (Matthew 5:44-45)

It is hard to fear, demonise or demean those with whom we disagree if we are loving and praying for them as Jesus requires. God’s grace is given indiscriminately and in the same way our respect should be provided to those with whom we disagree.

Those in position of authority and power are particularly vulnerable to personal attack rather than respectful disagreement. The Sydney University principles make particular note of this, as does the Apostle Paul who advises:

'Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.' (Romans 13: 1-2)

A particularly useful technique is to establish common ground with the person with whom you disagree. This creates a shared position from which to safely explore those points on which difference exists.

This is the technique often used by Jesus.

  • Dialogue with the Samaritan woman commenced with the common ground of ‘thirst’ at the well (John 4)
  • Dialogue with Zacchaeus was enabled through friendship and hospitality (Luke 19: 1-10)
  • Dialogue with a Young Ruler commenced through a common interest in eternal life (Matthew 19:16-22)

In writing to the Romans, the Apostle Paul writes: 

'Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.' (Romans 14:19)

If we are to make every effort to do what leads to peace with our brothers and sisters in Christ, then this principle should apply to all our conversations. It is interesting that acting to make peace leads to ‘mutual edification’. Maybe we miss something if we win the argument but lose the peace?

Our schools should be places where disagreement does not diminish dignity and respect for the individual.

In matters related to faith, there is a fourth attitude to adopt in disagreeing well.

4. Give 'reason for the hope you have'

Australian society is now being referred to as being in the post-Christian age. The credibility of the institutionalised church, which has played a pivotal role in Australia’s social fabric since European settlement in 1788, is now seriously in question. The cumulative effect of liberalism, social change and the horrendous acts of people closely associated with the Christian church has been telling. The status of those professing Christian belief has shifted from being in the mainstream to being in the minority and subject to ridicule from commentators, comedians and Joe Blow over the back fence.

The Apostle Peter calls us to 'always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have' (1 Peter 3:15). In doing so we can expect that disagreement will be encountered and the skills of disagreeing well will be tested.

Confidence can be gained in knowing that a Christian is not speaking from a deficit position, that 'the word of God is alive and active (and) sharper than any double-edged sword'. (Hebrews 4:12)

The response of a Christian to disagreement is to be countercultural. The Apostle Peter calls us to 'live such good lives … that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us'. (1 Peter 2:12)

Developing a student’s understanding of God’s word and intention for their lives is the best preparation we can give for life in a world where disagreeing well is a lost art.

End comment

Dr Spence made a surprising and somewhat alarming statement at the ASA Conference. He said:

'Christians find it hard enough to live at peace with one another, to disagree well in the church … there are currently 41,000 Christian dominations; not bad for a faith whose scriptures are full of commands to unity and whose Lord prayed that ‘they may be all one’.'

Teaching students to disagree well is not an easy task. Nevertheless, schools should be quite intentional in equipping students to listen well, maintain an open mind, respect the person and be prepared to ‘give reason for the hope they have’. The maintenance of our civil society depends on it and Jesus Christ demands it.

Stephen Kinsella has 40 years of experience as a teacher and administrator in government and independent schools - 17 years as the Head of two Anglican schools. As Executive Director of Anglican EdComm he continues to maintain his interest in Christian Education and support for teachers serving in Christian schools.

Reference List:

Guthrie, Donald (2018). Video of presentation given at the Anglican EdComm Christians in Teaching Conference held on 5 May, 2018 http://edcomm.org.au/projectsandpublications/christians-in-teaching-conference/

Hope, Michael. H, (2007). Lending an Ear: Why Leaders Must Learn to Listen Actively, LIA (Vol 7, No 4)

Moore, Natasha (2018). Address given at the ASA Conference on 10 August 2018. No script of the presentation is available.

Spence, Michael (2018). Address given at the ASA Conference on 10 August 2018. No script of the presentation is available but the text is similar to a Graduation Address given at the Sydney College of Divinity http://scd.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/Graduation-Address-2017-M.-Spence.pdf

Disclaimer: The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of EdComm or the Anglican Diocese of Sydney. The intent is to promote thinking and discussion.

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