5 Guidelines for Productive Disagreement

This is a work-in-progress, and feedback is encouraged.

Buster Benson
Why Are We Yelling?
3 min readJan 18, 2019


Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal: Straw Man

These guidelines are aspirational and nobody is expected to flawlessly follow all of them all of the time. They’re our attempt to articulate the spirit of a friendly and diverse community in our conversations on social media, around the dinner table, and in our communities. Each guideline requires honest buy-in from everyone involved and active participation in them because they have no power of their own. This is an invitation to think about and help give shape to the invisible guidelines we choose to follow.


  1. Always use respectful language, even when talking about people or groups that aren’t present.
  2. Don’t posture or post opinions as facts. Make your case and invite people to disagree.
  3. Use language (and silence) that invites dialogue so that quieter people can enter the conversation.
  4. Be willing to be wrong. Be excited even! It means you’ll be more right going forward.
  5. If someone has broadened your perspective on a topic, even a little bit, let them know. This is a win-win for everyone.
  6. Don’t pile on against someone. If you see that happening, help restore a friendly dynamic even if you disagree with them.


  1. Consider the possibility of unfamiliar and scary ideas. Ideas can’t bite.
  2. Seek to understand alternative viewpoints before stating your own.
  3. Don’t jump to conclusions about what others think without confirmation. Leave some room that you might be missing something, then ask them to help you bridge that gap.
  4. Accept strong emotions as they are expressed. Don’t interpret them as attacks, but rather invitations to inquire further about something clearly important.
  5. If things are getting heated, ask for clarification as a way to stall while you have a chance to lower your blood pressure a bit.


  1. Great questions create room for great answers. Don’t ask questions that you think you already know the answer to — ask open-ended questions and aim to be surprised.
  2. Make an honest effort to find an existing answer before asking someone to dig it up for you.
  3. Only ask questions that can be addressed by people in the conversation, and ask them as individuals rather than as representatives of a broader group.
  4. Listen generously and charitably.


  1. Speak only for yourself and your own experiences. Don’t try to interpret other people’s experiences, let them do that for you.
  2. When answering questions, make sure the question is addressed to you. If it’s not meant for you, ask if they’d like to hear your perspective, or don’t answer it.
  3. Don’t speculate how other people or groups are thinking, or why they did something. Invite them to speak for themselves.


  1. Challenge yourself and others to think, feel, and be better versions of ourselves as individuals and as a community.
  2. Suggest improvements where you see things not working. Even better, volunteer to fix them!
  3. Admit your own mistakes if it’s relevant to the conversation, even if nobody else would’ve noticed.
  4. Ask for kind and direct feedback. Before delivering kind and direct feedback make sure the person wants it and ask them how they’d like to receive it.


The hard part is noticing when you’ve entered into Argumentland. Almost anything that sparks anxiety can turn into an argument, but only occasionally do we actively decide to jump in. These guidelines also work when you are avoiding conflict… because we’re still arguing in our heads and could heed these guidelines.


Why Are We Yelling? The Art of Productive Disagreement. On sale 11/19/2019.
Adapted from Why Are We Yelling? The Art of Productive Disagreement.

Please leave a reply if you have any suggestions for improvement, or to share how you’ve articulated your own guidelines.



Buster Benson
Why Are We Yelling?

Product at @Medium. Author of “Why Are We Yelling? The Art of Productive Disagreement”. Also: busterbenson.com, new.750words.com, me.dm/@buster