Was talking to a student this week over some issues regarding gender. For some reason she said a few times that we weren’t to agree on the topic at hand.
That put us on an additional discussion.
Which is more important, agreement or understanding?
It’s a key question, especially today in our contentious and over-polarized political and moral public discourse where it often happens at high-volume in simplistic soundbites on 24 hour cable shows. In my work, I deal with this all the time. If agreement doesn’t happen it’s believed we are not affirming or accepting one another. This is a very brittle way to deal with others and evaluate our relationship with them.
I told this student – at her numerous warnings that we weren’t going to agree – that understanding was much better than agreement. The fact that she was asking me honest and pointed questions about my take on an issue was more virtuous than trying to achieve agreement.
There is a difference between the two. Too often, pressing for or expecting agreement is about control: “I need you to agree with me and if you can’t, then have a good life.”
Seeking honest understanding is respectful to the person and the importance of the topic itself. It says, “I want to make sure I understand what it is you believe and why rather than just assuming I know.” A well-educated and curious person take’s that position toward others.
Now this doesn’t mean that we seek to engage in a kumbaya “peace, love and understanding” sentimentality. Quite the opposite. It means that if disagreement – even passionate, serious disagreement – must be the result, as least we know why it is we disagree. Again, this is respectful and actually lays a foundation for potential friendship. Yes, it is possible to be friends with those whom we strongly disagree!
Who would resist an opponent coming to us and sincerely asking “Now my understanding is that you believe X,Y,Z about P,D,Q? Can you help me understand why that is?” You then have the good opportunity to explain this is a popular misunderstanding of your position, terribly presumptive, not quite right or precisely right on. Who doesn’t appreciate that? And hopefully you can do the same for them.
In this you might find you actually do agree, can agree on particular points or don’t agree at all. But at least you both know why any of these might be true. And you can take that knowledge with you as you meet others with similar views rather than just assuming you know why they believe as they do.
Understanding is more important than agreement. Give inquiry a chance.