How to Disagree Without Being a Jerk

We were talking about Church authority, infallibility, and the like. Usually a fun conversation, I tend to enjoy this particular topic. He said the Catholic Church has changed its teachings and therefore couldn’t be infallible (or trusted). I decided to clarify the difference between doctrine (official teaching) and discipline (the best way to live out a doctrine), the latter of which can be changed.

getting punched

He shot back, “Oh yeah? Well, ‘doctrine’ just means ‘teaching’!”. It was extremely annoying, it bothers me when people twist my words and use them against me. While what he said was true (the root word in Latin does in fact mean ‘teaching’), I was usually a more restricted definition since this was a more technical thing. He did it to prove a point, but it damaged the conversation: we both got defensive and it went downhill from there.

As much as I can try and fault him for the conversation, I know I do the same thing all the time. It was a good reality check. I’ve found it’s very easy to say you like conversations with people who disagree with you. But actually being in those conversations? Different story.

A great illustration came from comments on social media about Syrian refugees coming into the United States. Posts, whether text or meme-style pictures, tended to either say something to the effect of “you’re heartless if you don’t let refugees in” or “terrorists will come in and you’re stupid if you let refugees in”. No dialogue there.

I think both sides agree that security is important and helping those in need is important, yet neither would concede that point for fear of “losing”. The tone of most posts was definitely jerk-like, and of course if you don’t invite disagreement you probably won’t get it (or if you do, it’ll be an equally jerk-like response).

What started to happen was a bunch of like-minded people all agreeing, with little back-and-forth. Which leads me to my first point:

We like to be liked

We like to be liked. Simple as that. The problem is, we see disagreeing with someone as not liking them as a person, and take disagreement as a personal attack. So, we tend to avoid bringing up disagreement. Either we’ll dominate the conversation and not let opposing viewpoints in, or stay silent until we can bring it up around like-minded people.

Think of the last political conversation you were part of. Did it fit what I just described? Mine did: most people were on one particular side, any opposing points got shot down without being considered much. Now flip it around: how often have you done that to others? For me, too many to count. It’s especially bad if I feel attacked. If I lash out because they did, soon it’s not a fun conversation at all.

We like to be right

Not only do we like to be liked, we also like to be right. We like to have all the answers, to have the irrefutable argument, to drop the mic and leave our opponents in stunned silence. There’s a certain pride in gloating over “victory” like that.

It’s also completely counterproductive. It only pushes people away. If our goal was to convince them of a particular point, our “victory” is actually failure if we’re rude or gloating.

Look at most debates, whether political debates, theist/atheist debates, or most anything. It comes down to having the perfect argument. That’s why I shied away from engaging in controversial conversations, whether in person or online, because I was afraid of not having the right answer or not having an answer at all. I wanted to be right, not look stupid. So I said nothing.

The funny thing is, by accepting that I won’t have all the answers, I’m less afraid to be part of those conversations. It’s so freeing to say, “I don’t know the answer, but I can look it up and we can talk about it later.” Humility is disarming. Or sometimes I pull out my phone and we look it up right then. Definitely diffuses the situation, it’s less “you vs. me” and more “us vs. ignorance”.

Actually listen

If people are used to the “I have to have all the right answers” style of discussions, they’re probably afraid to engage in controversial conversations also. So if you want to disagree with them and not be a jerk about it, you can help put them at ease. You can help make the conversation safe, especially safe to disagree.


If people are used to others listening just to respond, actually listen to them. Listen to understand.

If people are used to others ignoring them as a person, respect them as a person.

If people are used to others shooting down dissent, let them know dissent is welcome.


Actually listening earns a ton of respect. It’s not very common for people to take the time to actually listen. Give them that honor and respect the dignity they have as a human being.

One practice I like to do is fairly and accurately re-state their thoughts and arguments before responding. Notice that I said “fairly and accurately”. It’s very easy to twist someone’s argument into something else, and no one likes it when that happens.

(plus, it means you’ll respond to their actual argument, not an argument they don’t have)

I love asking, “I want to make sure I’m understanding you correctly. What you’re saying is ____ , is that right, or did I miss something?” Perhaps I did misunderstand them. Now’s the chance to clear it up. If I got it right and they say something to the effect of, “Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m saying,” I can now say, “Well, here’s where I disagree.” And the conversation goes from there.

Or, sometimes they don’t even know their own argument, they have a vague idea of what they think but haven’t thought through all the steps. If I can sum it up for them, they’ll say, “That’s it! That’s what I’m thinking.” With that clarity, we can start talking about what they think.

I remember one such conversation from last semester. There were three of us talking, and we knew we disagreed with each other. Yet, we took the time to actually listen and it became more about hearing each other out than proving each other wrong. It was one of the best conversations I had all semester, and my job is to have lots of conversations with people.

I want to have more conversations like that, and I know the only person I have control over is myself. So, that means I have to do what I can to not be a jerk and invite disagreement, to respect them as a person, and actually listen.

Join the conversation:What’s been one great conversation you had where you disagreed but no one was a jerk about it? What kinds of things did you do to help make it that way? Join the conversation on social media or in the comments below. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic. For a full comments policy, see my comments policy

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

One thought on “How to Disagree Without Being a Jerk

  1. A great conversation where I disagreed but no one was a jerk about it was in Religion class, when we were talking about the effects of porn. I just listened, tried not to negatively judge, and tried to respect everyone’s opinions, even if I didn’t disagree with them. Jason Jensen once said, “You are not your ideas,” so if I don’t like someone’s point of view, it doesn’t mean I don’t like him/ her as a person.