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How to Disagree Productively and Find Common Ground

Well, it has been a long time since the last time I watched a TedTalk. Just now, stumbled on a awesome one by Julia Dhar on how to disagree productively and find common ground. She said her mission in lives to help us “disagree productively”.

Julia Dhar’s love for arguing led her to join her school’s debate team, during her 1st time, Dhar resorted to launching personal attacks on her opponents rather than discussing the topic at hand. Dhar subsequently took offense when her opponents challenged her arguments, provoking her to cling to ever more extreme viewpoints.

But Dhar eventually perfected the art. She won three World School Debating Championships and made it her mission to teach others how to “disagree productively.

According to Dhar.

The first step in any debate should be to find common ground with your opponent. This “shared reality” is a mutual principle such as human equality, for instance can serve as a basis for discussion.

The formal debate format whereby participants take turns supporting a stance and rebutting (for and against) their opponent’s stance which lends itself well to resolving conflicting viewpoints as it forces participants to engage with their opponents directly, not via computer screens.

Research suggests that hearing the voice of someone making a case for something with which you disagree “humanizes” the argument and makes you more likely to consider that viewpoint and engage, so stay off your keyboard and actually talk to the person whom you’re arguing with.

Moreover, having a structured debate about an important issue will likely generate more interesting ideas than holding weekly team meetings, for example.

A debate, however, will be fruitful only if you can separate your opponent’s identity and affiliations from the factual merits of his or her ideas. In formal debates, each team gets assigned a viewpoint to defend. Hence, there is no basis for launching ad hominem attacks on your opponent. When Dhar helps teams brainstorm new ideas or solve problems, she has participants submit their proposals anonymously. If you don’t know the background or identity of the idea’s originator, you will be more open to considering the idea. Similarly, public debates on policy issues would be much more productive if the political affiliations of the idea’s proponents remained hidden.

“The way that you reach people is by finding common ground. It’s by separating ideas from identity and being genuinely open to persuasion.”

Once you start evaluating the merits of your opponent’s idea, you must remain open to the possibility of changing your mind. Psychologists call the ability to consider all available evidence objectively “intellectual humility.”

It is a much-admired virtue in debate moderators, news anchors and elected officials. Having the ability to see the world from another person’s viewpoint and the humility to change your mind when warranted will make you not only a skilled debater but also a better decision maker.


  • In any debate, try to find common ground with your opponent, which can establish a shared basis of discussion. 
  • When disagreeing with someone, focus exclusively on the merits of your opponent’s argument irrespective of his or her background or political affiliation.  
  • When evaluating your opponent’s idea, remain open to the possibility of changing your mind, a mental attitude psychologists refer to as “intellectual humility.”
  • We usually become attached to our ideas.
  • We need to be humble about our uncertainty.


ad hominem : short for argumentum ad hominem, is a fallacious argumentative strategy whereby genuine discussion of the topic at hand is avoided by instead attacking the character, motive, or other attribute of the person making the argument, or persons associated with the argument, rather than attacking the substance of the argument itself


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