The Art of Dissenting
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
This quote, attributed to the holocaust survivor and therapist Victor E. Frankl, gets right to the heart of what is so unique about human action. While there is a cause and effect dynamic between stimulus and our feelings, we have the ability to interrupt and adjust our own reactions by reflecting and communicating. If this space between stimulus and response did not exist, it would be difficult for healthy, communicative relationships to be possible: we could never productively share our disagreements or come to new understandings, only react without thought or consideration.
One of the most important (but often overlooked) actions we can choose within this space is dissent. “Dissent” might have a negative connotation, but it is also an empowering term: a dissenter is someone who is willing to express or enact disagreement.
WHEN WE DISSENT, IT IS OFTEN AN INTERRUPTION OF AN AUTOMATED OR ASSUMED MOMENT. IT IS ONE PERSON ALERTING THEMSELVES, AND THE OTHER, THAT SOMETHING HAS SLIPPED OUT OF ALIGNMENT.
I have emphasized that relational evasion—the choice to avoid intentionally expressing our thoughts and feelings in relation to others—leads to emotional opacity, blocking opportunities to build a shared world with our partners and family. Dissent is a powerful counter to emotional opacity: it transforms disconnect from something implicit in the conversation into an explicit part of the relationship which can be addressed.
When done well, dissent is done in service of connection. It might be about rupture, it might simply be to course-correct when we lose track of a moment or conversation. It is making explicit that moment in our own body and feelings that says “something is askew, we should figure out what happened.”
DISSENT IS SOMATICALLY INFORMED: IT COMES FROM UNCONSCIOUS WISDOM THAT WE CAN TRUST
The wisdom that informs dissent does not say “I know better than you” or “I know it all,” but it is self-assured and asserts internal clarity. Dissent simply says “I know what I know” about your own subjective reality: even if you don’t immediately know the solution or what is needed, you know your own feelings and your instinctual response to the situation.
We often feel dissent inside of us before we express it: it is the twisting in our gut when we encounter a hostile tone of voice, the feeling of drifting away when we lose track of a conversation. By expressing dissent, we take this somatic, bodily wisdom and bring it together with intentional, communicative thought processes. Therefore, the ability to dissent well is a symptom of self-awareness and wholeness.
IT IS A VERY HEALTHY SELF WHO DISSENTS WELL AND DIPLOMATICALLY.
Respectful and considerate dissent is an important part of any sustained relationship—whether that be with a partner, family member, friend, or even coworker. Bringing disagreement into a conversation to complicate and clarify our understanding is a valuable skill: as unique individuals, we are bound to have differing perspectives and disagreements, but can also grow and learn to collaborate and up level by acknowledging those differences.
One of the most inspiring examples of dissent—a case of respectfully expressing profound and important disagreement—is the life of the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and her friendship with former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
Despite being on opposite sides of the political spectrum, both justices built a strong and lasting friendship on their ability to diplomatically dissent with one another over contentious issues. Their ability to say “They are my friend and yet I vehemently, explicitly disagree” was the foundation of their connection and respect. In fact, their careers were dedicated to strengthening the legitimacy and judiciousness of the Supreme Court as an institution precisely by discussing issues from multiple perspectives. This capacity to dissent not only improved their personal relationship but ensured the issues at hand were given due respect and consideration.
Their example shows how the dissenter is not interrupting to make it about “me” but to introduce a “both/and” relation into the situation. Dissent brings forth clarification and elevates discourse; it shows that we are following the conversation and can be open when something doesn’t track.
REALIGNMENT MIGHT HAPPEN AT THE MOMENT OF DISSENT, OR IT MIGHT TAKE MORE TIME AND CONSIDERATION.
Sometimes an expression of dissent is enough for us to realign. It can be as simple as saying “I’m sorry, I think I’m misunderstanding you, can you elaborate on that?” or “I think I’m not connecting with what you said, could we go over this again?” Other times, dissent is a step on a longer journey towards repairing a rupture.
A healthy dissent that does not demand immediate realignment or reconciliation is when our partner asks “Why are you upset?” and we respond: “I would like to tell you, but I can’t express those feelings right now. I am very emotional and I need time to think before we go into this.” Dissent can happen at any point in the rupture and repair process. We may even dissent once our partners have acknowledged and apologized for causing emotional pain late in the process of repair. We might need to say: “Thank you for apologizing, I’m glad we’ve talked about this, but I’m not ready to forgive just yet.”
Dissent means that we can “interrupt” our partners as part of acknowledging the rupture and repair process. Instead of evading our relational responsibilities, we can make more explicit the disconnects or needs which are not being addressed, even if that also means acknowledging the need for more time or space to think. It is possible to communicate and acknowledge rupture without expecting or demanding immediate reconciliation.
SINCE WE ARE ALL SEPARATE BEINGS HAVING SEPARATE PERCEPTIONS OF THE SAME MOMENT, EVEN SHARED EXPERIENCES CAN HAVE INEVITABLE DIFFERENCES.
It can take a lot of effort to really engage with this reality at the start, but with practice, it becomes intuitive to relate to the other person’s reality without redefining it into our own perspective. Dissent is an essential skill to practice if we wish to engage in others’ realities meaningfully and find common ground for our subjective differences.
Learning to dissent takes practice. That’s why I created my Rupture and Repair Workbook to provide practical, accessible exercises that you can apply on your own. If you are ready to explore the process of rupture and repair in your own relationships, you can download this complete PDF here.