How to Disagree

Nowadays with the internet and social media, thousands of bloggers, and Facebook posts and comments, people everywhere can join in a conversation like never before.  Usually in writing (or in conversation), but often in writing, people who respond to a post often disagree. If you agree, actually you have less to say, right? When you disagree, you are probably entering territory the other side has not explored, or others are unaware of.

Nowadays, the disagreeing is occurring on a scale that is visible to our friends, and our “friends of friends”, and even beyond. Because people are able to disagree “online” and not in person, more disagreements could be making people angrier (though it may not necessarily be true they are disagreeing more than they have before).

So how can we disagree well?

I first came across an answer to this question while teaching debate a couple of years ago; a particular  diagram was included in one of the debate books I was reading.

A computer scientist, Paul Graham, wrote an essay in 2008 called “How to Disagree”. In that essay, he organized different types of argument into a 7 point hierarchy. The hierarchy is shaped like a pyramid, and the higher you climb, the more likely you are disagreeing well. Graham says, “If moving up the disagreement hierarchy makes people less mean, that will make most of them happier.”

Here is Graham’s Hierarchy of Disagreement:




The steps are further explained below:

Name-calling: This is the lowest form of disagreement, but sadly it is likely the most common. I think we are all familiar with this one.

Ad Hominen: An Ad Hominem attack is a logical fallacy in which an argument is rebutted by attacking the character, motive, or other attribute of the other. It has more weight than name-calling, but is still a weak form of argument.  The result of such an attack is that it can undermine someone’s case without actually having to engage in the issue itself.

Responding to Tone:  At this level, we begin to see responses to the writing, as opposed to the writer. It is the lowest form of addressing the writing and still a weak form of disagreement.  If you can only criticize someone’s tone, you are not saying much.

Contradiction:  At this level, a response is given to what was said. This is the lowest form of “argument” because it is simply stating the opposing side with little or no evidence. Sometimes this is combined with a response to tone. This response can occasionally have some weight, especially if simply stating the opposite side is enough, but usually evidence is helpful.

Counterargument:  This is the first form of convincing disagreement. Counterarguments “prove something”… but it is usually hard to say exactly what they prove. Counterarguments are contradiction plus some reasoning and evidence, but usually these are not aimed at the original argument, but at something else.

Refutation. The most convincing form of disagreement is refutation. It is also the rarest because it is the most work. To refute someone, you have to quote them, and also have to find whatever it is you disagree with and explain why it is mistaken.

This may sound easy, but it is easy to get sidetracked or be unorganized. Extending this application to Team Policy debate, in debate we teach a technique called “Four Point Refutation”. It breaks refutation down into four easy steps. One of the simplest forms I have found of explaining this is as follows:

They say…
But we say…

With 4 point refutation, the speaker first quotes the other side: “They say….”.
Then the speaker states his position: “But we say….”
He then explains why he holds this position, along with corresponding evidence: “Because….”
The last step, “Therefore.…”, answers the “so what?” question, as in, why does it matter? What is the impact? So often, debaters will neglect the impact of their argument, or they will neglect to keep their arguments organized in this manner.

As a listener (or a judge in debate rounds), hearing 4 point refutation makes the debate more organized and easier to follow. Successful teams will practice 4 point refutation and use it intentionally.

Refuting the Central Point:  The most powerful form of disagreement is to refute someone’s central point.  In order to refute the opponent’s central point, one has to explain explicitly what that point is.

Extending this application again into Team Policy Debate, understanding the opponent’s central point and directly refuting  the core of the opponent’s argument is key. That is the REAL debate round. Once debaters get into a “REAL” round, you can see the difference, not only in the quality of the argumentation of the round, but also in the excitement of the debaters; after such a round, they are thrilled to have encountered a challenging duel of ideas in which the arguments were focused on the pros and cons of those ideas.

As a parent of debaters, and as a debate coach, I clearly see debate has taught students how to disagree in a respectful manner, and to help them identify the core arguments or central ideas of an issue.

So how does this help you specifically as a communicator?

There are numerous personal and professional advantages. As a reader of news and opinion, for example, you can evaluate what sort of arguments you are reading, particularly intellectually dishonest ones. It also  helps you to be aware of your own responses as you disagree.

Not only does this make conversations better, it also makes the people who engage in such conversations happier. According to Graham, if we study conversations at the lowest level, there is much more “meanness” in the lower levels. The higher you climb on the hierarchy, the more you realize that you do not have to be mean when you  have a real point to make. “In fact,” he says, “you don’t want to. If you have something real to say, being mean just gets in the way.” Many people are mean because they cannot help it, because most people probably do not enjoy being mean. But, the higher we move up the disagreement hierarchy, the happier we will be in terms of our communication and conversation when we come to the point of disagreement.  (source:

Now that is a pyramid worth climbing! The view is worth it from that height!

Question for you:  Are there people in your life that operate on those lower levels? Are there people in your life that operate on the higher levels? Here’s a little bit of a tough assignment… a little self-evaluation. Where do you fit on this hierarchy? (I’m preaching to myself, too!) As you read and interact, keep in mind this hierarchy, and try to determine where the disagreement lands on the pyramid. Try to practice finding the core of the arguments you are reading or conversing about. Observe how quickly it is to slide down the pyramid to a lower level, and observe how much more work is required at the higher levels.  Consider what changes you need to make as you evaluate your own place on the pyramid.








2 thoughts on “How to Disagree

  1. WOW! I found this article so fascinating! I love stuff like this. I’m going to have to go back and read more of your 31 Days! I just wrote today about how I hate confrontation, so I feel I could learn a lot from your writing ;) I think I fall in the Responding to the Tone Category. I am an instant-feeler, so if I don’t like the way something was presented tone wise, I will most likely focus on my feelings rather than facts. I’m going to have to print this chart out– Super helpful!. Thanks again!

    1. Hi Kaitlin, isn’t this interesting? I’m so glad you found it helpful! There is so much to learn, isn’t there… especially in the category of resolving conflict and disagreement! Thank you for reading and commenting here!

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