You can disagree without being disagreeable

You can disagree without being disagreeable

High Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s hard-earned and effective negotiation tactics

As the lights go down and the documentary about High Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg opens, the first thing you hear is the voices of different men calling Justice Ginsburg the most horrific names. The film does not dwell on who these men are or why they were so angry with her, but the story of her life and work to secure equal rights for all contains plenty of examples of what might have been so hard for them to deal with. Looking at and listening to Justice Ginsburg for a couple of hours confirms that she was, and is, true to her own advice: you can disagree without being disagreeable. Her soft-spoken, somewhat withdrawn and almost neutral demeanor makes it easy to believe, that here’s a woman who has found a way to keep her calm through some pretty heavy storms. And prevailed. So, I both absolutely believe she speaks from experience and I totally agree that it is vitally important to behave as best you can, to communicate as constructively as possible, especially when negotiating with those you disagree with the most.

A well-known example of how she actually walked the talk is Justice Ginsberg’s close friendship with her fellow Justice Scalia, who often represented strong opinions that were on the opposite end of the scale. Justice Scalia obviously didn’t feel in the slightest concerned about their differences and neither did she. But other men (and many women too) did. Even if Justice Ginsberg did what she advises others to do: ‘When a thoughtless or unkind word is spoken, best tune out’ and kept moving forward regardless, in a calm and collected manner, then what she said and did obviously provoked a lot of people. This is how it often is with disagreement. If we disagree with someone over what they perceive to be basic ‘truths’, then the kindest and most level-headed presentation of arguments and differing opinions can still be like pouring petrol on an open fire. Justice Ginsburg has lots of experience with this and consequently expects this. She also has a vast knowledge of and an unwavering belief in what she is fighting for, which has made her admirably robust and influential. We all need to be a bit more like Justice Ginsberg, but even if we try to frame our disagreement in an agreeable fashion, we will all encounter strong reactions to something we say or do at some point in our lives. And that’s okay. We can still work with this. Here’s how, according to the judge.

Ms. Ginsberg admonishes us to: ‘Fight for the things you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you’. Throughout her long life as a lawmaker, she has demonstrated how fighting against inequality is something you need to do step by step, ruling by ruling, and have faith that ‘time is on the side of change’. When you constantly negotiate to create a positive change that involves making everyone see women and minority groups in a fundamentally new light, then you need to be both firm and flexible. Firm when it comes to insisting on making positive changes and flexible when it comes to finding ways of ‘leading others to join you’. Her own recipe involves ‘listening and learning from others’ and realizing, that we are all at times victims of our own generalizations and unconscious biases. ‘I am fearful, or suspicious, of generalizations…They cannot guide me reliably in making decisions about particular individuals’ Keeping an open mind and a readiness to be surprised is incredibly hard for most of us, because we believe that we ‘know’ and understand so much. So, here’s another challenge in negotiation: to dare to question one’s own perception of things and particularly of how and why other people do what they do.

Justice Ginsberg has become the most unlikely of icons. An intelligent, humanistic and soft-spoken woman in her eighties makes a statement and the world listens. That’s marvelous.