Disagreeing Without Being Disagreeable

Conflict is inevitable in most relationships. So, it’s useful to know how to engage in it without inflicting damage. This requires learning how to persuade by focusing more on the issue at hand rather than the personal qualities or mood states of the people involved. Most of us know this on some level. It’s one of those common sense rules of communication that’s uncommonly applied. 


Since we’re creatures of habit, we communicate in generally predictable ways unless we develop the capacity to reflect before acting. Of the many skills required to be politically astute, this is one of the most important. Skillful communicators know that words are weak vehicles of meaning. They realize and remember that many people choose among them quickly and that what is meant is often not what is said. 

This mindset is difficult to acquire. Most of us proceed each day to operate on unchecked inferences and judgments. We assume far more than we check, thereby trusting observations that are inaccurate. Arguments often result. 

I’ve devised a shorthand method for avoiding such communication pitfalls. It’s a mind-exercise routine to expand powers of observation. It bypasses the tendency to react impulsively. Over time, it becomes a way of disagreeing without being disagreeable.

The acronym for this is PURRR. It’s useful in helping to remember the steps involved and evokes the image of a cat calmly responding to its environment. Here are the steps involved:

—       PAUSE the next time you’re about to formulate a judgment about a person based on something he or she has said or done.

—       Make sure you UNDERSTAND what the person meant, which may involve inquiring rather than assuming.

—       REFLECT briefly on whether the intention was to insult you. In any case, try to place your focus on the issue at hand.

—       REINTERPRET what was said in a way that allows for a considered response rather than an impulsive reaction. Share that reinterpretation (e.g., “We actually agree more than meets the eye,” or “I believe there is only one rather small issue on which we still have some disagreement”).

—       REDIRECT the conversation onto a path that best serves your own or mutual goals (“If we resolve this one aspect, or agree to disagree, we’re on a good track”).

Let’s suppose your usually easygoing boss is in a foul mood. He approaches you and angrily says, “I need that report tomorrow.  No excuses.” You weren’t going to be late with the report. In fact, your work is never late. You are at a choice point. Do you react defensively?  You could ask, “What’s wrong with you?” But what’s the primary goal? Is it to get the work done or fix his unusual mood?  

It may be better to PAUSE. Upon REFLECTION, you may UNDERSTAND his comments were out of character. Perhaps he is under pressure. Rather than focus on his bad mood, which will delay your work and get you into a discussion at a time when he is angry, you could REINTERPRET the event as a one-off slip on his part. Next, REDIRECT the conversation onto a productive path. One way to do that is to simply reply, “I’ll have it on your desk first thing in the morning.” This response bypasses the relational (bad mood) component and instead focuses on the content of what he said (timely delivery of the report).

There are times when after applying the PURRR process, it’s clear that the comment was just too personal or outlandish to let it pass. At least you won’t have flown off the handle by making something that is about the other person (current mood) about you as well. If you’re prone to making disagreements into disagreeable situations, this technique may be just what you need.

Kathleen also blogs about communication, negotiation, and politics here.

Photo: Geir Solevag/Shutterstock.com

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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
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The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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