So You Think You Disagree? 4 Reasons Why You May Not

If you have ever had someone disagree with something you’ve said or written . . . or you’ve disagreed with what someone has ever said or written, then this post is for you. Three things by way of introduction. When people disagree with you . . .

  1. Some will be charitable in their disagreement.
  2. Others will be defamatory.
  3. Sometimes many of the people who think they disagree with you really don’t.

To be sure, there are genuine disagreements. And we should welcome them. It’s one way to fine-tune our thinking. None of us can claim immaculate perception.

But in all the years that I’ve been writing books, blogging, and speaking, I’ve discovered that after having a respectful conversation with a reasonable person, we often learn that there is no substantive disagreement. In my experience at least, this happens approximately 75% of the time.

That said, here are 4 reasons why a person may think they disagree with you when they really don’t. Note that I’m using the word “author” here to refer to the human source of any piece of writing or speech.

1) The author wasn’t clear in making her or his point, so his or her points were misunderstood. When it comes to articulating our thoughts, we all have room for improvement. For myself, I’m constantly honing my writing, restating things, rewording sentences, reworking the material to be as clear as possible. Yet I am never satisfied. Winston Churchill perfectly describes my experience when he said,

Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement; then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, and then a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster, and fling him out to the public.

Sometimes, our words lend themselves to misunderstanding. In such cases, there is no substantive disagreement, just a misunderstanding.

Take Away: Ask the author for clarification if you think you may be misunderstanding him or her.

2) The author’s statements have been taken out of context and misrepresented, then spread. This happens more than you know. My friends Christian Smith, N.T. Wright, Leonard Sweet, and Alan Hirsch have had to deal with it in spades.

The little red book that I wrote with George Barna is reported to be “the most reviewed book by those who’ve never read it.” The misrepresentations surrounding that book are so outlandish (yet well written) that they make Mr. Spock seem real. This provoked us to create a special Q & A page for readers where we respond to objections and critiques. Potential readers can clearly see what we say in the book and what we don’t say.

Unfortunately, some people will intentionally misrepresent another person’s words. One sure sign of this is when a person criticizes a work, but they won’t post a clickable link [hyperlink] to the source they are criticizing. This is done so that those reading the critique can’t easily check to see if the critique is accurate or not. (This is especially true for online blogs, audios, and articles.)

Take Away: If someone critiques a piece of writing or talk, be sure to read or listen to the source of the critique yourself. This way you will know if the critique is accurate or not. Never believe a negative critique without first reading the source. Even if there are direct quotations in the critique. Quotations are like sound bytes that can be easily taken out of context. People do this when misrepresenting the Bible all the time.

3) The author’s statements are filtered through the reader’s experience. Sometimes people read their own experiences and assumptions into what they read and hear. The net effect is that the meaning the author intended is changed. Take the word “prophetic,” for instance. Some people understand that word to mean God has directly given an individual His words directly. Others understand it to mean a challenging word in the style of the Old Testament prophets. Others view it as a word that reveals Jesus Christ. Others understand it to be a word that predicts the future. See what I mean? Words like “organic,” “missional,” and “church” are routinely used to mean very different things by different people.

Take Away: Find out what an author means by a certain word before drawing a conclusion.

4) The author’s statements are misunderstood due to a differing spiritual conversational style. In Revise Us Again, I introduce readers to the three main spiritual conversational styles. (I’ve posted those chapters on this blog. Just start at the top and scroll down to find them.)

Try talking spirituality or theology with another Christian who uses a different spiritual conversational style than you? The result: popcorn. People think they disagree when they really don’t. Your discussion was shanghaied by a differing conversation style.

Take Away: Recognize that your disagreement may be rooted in a differing conversational style.

A Word to Readers

If you read a critique that disturbs or concerns you, always, always, always go directly to the source. Read the original work yourself. Or ask the author directly what she or he believes.

A Word to Writers

If you are a writer who is turning the sod on some issues, you and your work will be misrepresented at some point.

How you react, however, reveals volumes about your spiritual stature.

I’ve watched too many authors and bloggers return fire on those who attack them or misrepresent their work. And sometimes it gets ugly. This is the way of the flesh and shows nothing of the cross of Jesus Christ.

Trust the Lord with it. In most cases, those who are discerning will go to bat for you and defend your work. You don’t have to defend yourself. Let God do the defending.

Taking the high road, the road of our Lord Jesus, often means remaining silent when under attack.

To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly (1 Peter 2:21-23).

In addition, as a writer, you should make yourself accessible to your readers. Even if it’s through a personal assistant.

Inaccessibility is the outstanding trait of the celebrity. Try writing to Kim Kardashian or Justin Beiber and getting a response. The same holds true for some Christian authors today. Not that there’s anything wrong with that (to quote Seinfeld) . . . if being a celebrity is the way you want to roll.

But in my judgment, you should be accessible to answer questions about your work from people who are open minded, think the best of you, and genuinely want to understand what you’re saying. (Trolls are the exception, of course.) Not just for their sake, but also for your own.

Share a story of when someone thought they disagreed with you when in reality they didn’t.

**Check out Joel Miller’s post Sen. Mark Kirk, His Angels, and Ours

About Frank Viola

See my About page. Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above may be "affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.” Google+

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  • Frank Viola

    Thanks Bob. Feel free to the share this post as it may help others to see some of the thing that are at work and encourage them to respond more appropriately.

  • Bob Seidensticker

    Good points. I blog here at Patheos, and I find that I’m often misunderstood. Some commenters (usually the same antagonists) often begin a comment with, “Oh, so what you’re really saying is …” and then continue with something I’m not saying at all. I don’t know if this is an honest mistake, but it’s a challenge for me to remain calm and pleasant when it happens over and over. Problem is, when I vent, then I become the bad guy.


  • Mike

    I love this part-”To be sure, there are genuine disagreements. And we should welcome them. It’s one way to fine-tune our thinking. None of us can claim immaculate perception.” Thanks for your insights Frank!!!

  • Frank Viola

    Typically people will just say “go to his/her website” or read his/her book, title, page xx. The link policy has to do with using the blog for promotion which happens most of the time. Of course the Blog Manager has made a few exceptions when a link is absolutely needed to clarify something. But it’s rarely necessary.

  • smidoz

    Frank, obviously if the disagreement happens in one of your comment threads, and outside sourcs are needed, then putting a hyperlink in is impossible, as per your comment policy. Doesn’t that make it easy for people to misrepresent others arguments? For example, I could quote PZ Myers saying something really useful to creationists, and I can’t give a link, since the comment in question is not on his website, it’s not likely people are going to find it in a hurry.

  • Frank Viola


  • Ryan Robinson

    Was Pagan Christianity reviewed more by people who didn’t read it than Love Wins? Or Year of Biblical Womanhood? Those both had hundreds of negative reviews before they even released.

    On point, though, thanks for the post. I had somebody complain about how they completely disagreed with me because of one poorly-phrased sentence in a blog yesterday. They loved everything else I said and this sentence was meant to be completely in line with the rest but it was just ambiguous enough that they saw it as an attack.