When someone says this, what do they mean? To me, the statement seems to carry with it both positive and negative messages. Positives are the idea that an agreement can be salvaged out of an apparent impasse, and a sense that we don’t have to break off relationship completely. At the same time, there is a suggestion to put a particular issue to bed and not try to work on it further.
By saying, “Let’s agree to disagree,” the other party is suggesting they want to end communication on a particular issue. There are a potential variety of underlying concerns that could give rise to the wish of the other party to end communication over an issue. If you, in contrast, would like to explore the issue further, identifying one or more of these concerns may assist you to continue the conversation.
Rather than assume you know what is behind the other person’s suggestion, you can enquire, “What is your main concern?” or “What’s got you wanting to stop talking about the issue now?”
Here are some possible concerns underlying the phrase, “Let’s agree to disagree,” that you might hear:
- We’re not making any progress.
- I hate interacting with you.
- Further conversation could be unnecessarily destructive.
- I need a break.
- This is a waste of time.
Identifying the concern can serve to reinvigorate the dialogue and lead to a more productive avenue of communication. Below, the concerns are repeated along with ways that you can respond to them, or respond to impasse in general.
The other party: We’re not making any progress.
Possible response: To me, differences don’t mean that progress has stopped or is impossible. Rather than see differences as a permanent obstacle I would like to explore them further as I find they can lead to new ideas.
Possible response: Maybe we are trying to tackle too much of it all at once. Instead, let’s focus on what would be one step we could take that makes sense to both of us.
The other party: I hate interacting with you.
Possible response: I’m sure I can be a pain to deal with. Communicating with you is not my favourite pastime either. I’m certainly open to your feedback on how I could do better, and I might have some feedback for you as well.
The other party: Further conversation could be destructive.
Possible response: What kind of damage are you referring to? I’m also concerned about harming our relationship. I wonder if we could come up with and agree on a process that will prevent damage. I expect it will take certain commitments from both of us. I am willing to take this step if you are.
The other party: I need a break.
Possible response: A break could be overdue. Let’s just summarize where we are, decide what comes next, and then break. I’d like to meet next week and start by working out a system for communication that allows for breaks as soon as one of us needs one.
The other party: This is a waste of time.
Possible response: If you don’t feel your concerns can be addressed, I need to listen more to what you are looking for. I also need to explain better what I may be able to offer. What we learn could serve to confirm what you are thinking, but at least we will have a common understanding of what is not workable. Just as likely, I think a new direction may open up for both of us.
As well as considering how to respond to another person, the options above can be applied to yourself. If you are inclined to say, “Let’s agree to disagree,” what else do you mean? You will usually serve yourself better by explaining what is behind your request and suggesting how your concerns could be addressed. The examples above supply some guidance in how you might do that. They also indicate possible avenues for exploration at impasse in general.