How to Productively Disagree on Tough Topics

Instead of avoiding divisive issues, learn how to have thoughtful conversations that build mutual understanding and respect.

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Neil Webb/


Conversations about identity, diversity, and justice are some of the thorniest human interactions of our time. Consider Uber’s head of diversity, who hosted a workplace event titled “Don’t Call Me Karen” to highlight the “spectrum of the American White woman’s experience” and foster an “open and honest conversation about race.” Following backlash from employees of color, she was placed on a leave of absence.1

Or consider Stanford Law School’s associate dean for diversity, who tried to “de-escalate” student protests during a speech by conservative judge Kyle Duncan. The dean tried to placate the students, who were angered by the judge’s anti-LGBTQ+ views, while giving the judge the space to finish his talk. But her intervention led to a public furor due to a perception that she had prioritized students’ feelings over the judge’s right to free speech. She, too, was placed on leave.2

If these conversations stymie senior diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) professionals, what hope do ordinary leaders have? More than you might think.

We lead a research center at the New York University School of Law dedicated to issues of diversity, inclusion, and belonging. Together and separately, we’ve taught tens of thousands of individuals from all walks of life to have more meaningful and effective conversations across their differences. We focus our efforts on coaching people in positions of power because they have the greatest opportunity to transform the dynamics of these interactions — to foster empathy instead of provoking fear and division.

While the people we coach struggle with many types of identity conversations, disagreements are often the most agonizing. It’s relatively easy to participate in identity conversations when you and the other person are aligned. When you disagree, you’re likely to be flooded with angst and self-doubt. You might wonder: Am I as enlightened as I thought I was? Will people feel hurt or betrayed by me?

You might be tempted to respond to such angst by capitulating to whatever your conversation partner says. Yet that approach is often not desirable, because it compromises your dignity and authenticity. We believe it’s still possible to disagree on identity issues, even in today’s polarized and overheated political climate. The key is to do it respectfully. Here’s how.



1. K. Browning, “Uber’s Diversity Chief Put on Leave After Complaints of Insensitivity,” The New York Times, May 21, 2023,

2. V. Patel, “At Stanford Law School, the Dean Takes a Stand for Free Speech. Will It Work?” The New York Times, April 9, 2023,

3. S. Girgis, R. Anderson, and R. George, “What Is Marriage?: Man and Woman: A Defense” (New York: Encounter Books, 2012).

4.Orman and Anderson on Same-Sex Marriage,” filmed March 27, 2013, at CNN, Atlanta, video, 3:21,

5. R. Herrnstein and C. Murray, “The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life” (New York: Free Press, 1994).

6. D.C. Dennett, “Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking” (New York: W.W. Norton, 2013).

7.Parents Skeptical of Critical Race Theory Talk to Experts: Drawing Conclusions Part 1,” Oct. 4, 2021, at Emory University, Atlanta, video, 1:00:01,

8. D. Denvir and M. Weigel, “Reasonable Men Calming You Down With Moira Weigel,” Oct. 13, 2018, in “The Dig,” podcast, 46:06,

9. R. Munroe, “Duty Calls,” XKCD, web comic, accessed Aug. 25, 2023,

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Comment (1)
Stuart Roehrl
A well-written article - excellent recommendations and guidance.  I read this with great care and interest,  Very useful application in business and organizational relations.
Stuart Roehrl