Preparing Teens for the 21st Century Work Place: Dissenting Opinions

In There's a Stranger in My House by Dr James Wellborn

Your kids will be growing to adulthood in a century where the complexity of technology and the pace of change is unlike anything humans have ever experienced.  This is one in a series of columns devoted to identifying core competencies that will help teens be successful in this 21st century workplace.  Group decision making dynamics are becoming more prominent as work environments become more collaborative.  One well documented process is the pressure groups exert on individual members to agree with the majority or keep quiet, sometimes to disastrous and self-defeating effect.  Your kid’s ability to disagree and stick to a well-reasoned, opposing opinion (appropriately, without alienating colleagues) will be important to the effective functioning of 21st century businesses.

To begin with, your kids will need some specific skills in order to effectively disagree with the prevailing opinions of a group.

Speaking up.  If your kid is going to disagree, they will need to be comfortable voicing their opinions (without making things worse).  You can help them practice by encouraging them to tell you what they are thinking, especially in a tense or intense situation.  Part of this involves assertiveness.  (See Assertiveness chapter in my book Raising Teens in the 21st Century to help your kid with that.)  It will also require them to learn how to speak respectfully.  (See Respect chapter in my book Raising Teens in the 21st Century to get some ideas.)  When you make it clear they are worth listening to, they will feel that they have something to say.

Thinking for themselves.  To have an opposing opinion in a group, kids need to be comfortable thinking for themselves.  When there is a family decision to be made, when you are watching the news, when you are talking about why someone is being a jerk; ask your kid for their opinion (“What do you think about . . .?”).  And really listen.  If you disagree (or if there is a flaw in their thinking), point it out but in a conversational way (“You know, it makes sense but you may not be considering . . .”).

Take a position.  Dissent is about taking a position on something; having an (informed) opinion.   Some kids have trouble actually committing themselves to any one position.  Encourage your kid to clearly state a belief, opinion or decision.  Have them defend their views on an issue.  Make sure you challenge them enough to require them to hold under pressure.  (But, be careful not to crush them.  Remember, the goal is to have them become more confident TAKING a position; not to always be right.)

Standing your ground.  To effectively disagree, your kid will need to be able to stick to the opinions they have.  Give them direct encouragement to stand their ground (“Wait, don’t give up yet.  You have a point there.”)  You can also make it a kind of game.  Pick a topic and have some informal debates.  Tell your kid that you are going to keep trying to pressure them to change their mind even if you agree with them.  And, you are going to make really ridiculous points that they have to actually respond to.  This can help them improve their ability to both deal with pressure to give in as well as how to respond appropriately to the idiots they will encounter in the world.  (“YOU’RE AN IDIOT,” while accurate, would not be a desirable response).

Acknowledge others perspectives.  It is useful to make it clear to others that you have understood someone’s point before you disagree, especially in a work environment.  Your kid will need some practice learning to acknowledge the views of people with whom they disagree.  When they disagree with you, require them to summarize your position or views before they can start in on why your views are stupid.  “Wait, wait.  First you have to summarize my points.  Then, I want to hear what you have to say.”

Respectfully disagree.  If your kid is going to effectively offer a dissenting opinion they will need to know how to disagree without making things worse.  Watch for signs that your kid disagrees (e.g., screaming “THAT’S STUPID!”, rolling their eyes, becoming quiet with a clenched jaw).  Encourage them to tell you what they disagree with, but require them to do it appropriately.  If they mess up, have them do it again the right way (rather than just punishing them).  (See Argumentativeness chapter in my book Raising Teens in the 21st Century for some suggestions.)  You can also assign an official devil’s advocate.  When the family is trying to make a decision or is just discussing something, assign someone to take the opposite view from what everyone else thinks or believes.  (Make sure it is a rotating assignment.)

Avoid absolutes.  The world is mostly different shades of grey (except for some fundamental morals and rights).  Disagreeing can lead to becoming more and more polarized, my way or the highway.  Help your kid recognize the traps of starting out disagreeing and ending up a radical extremist.  Perspective is important (and difficult to maintain).

Shutting up without giving up.  Your kid will need to learn when it is time to stop talking (even if they are still right).  You can help them with direct instructions (“OK, this is the time to stop talking.”).  They may also need help understanding how to determine when it isn’t productive to keep talking.  (“From the way this conversation is going, do you think that I am likely to change my mind?  Now, if you keep trying to get me to change my mind, what do you think my reaction will be?”)

Being a good loser.  It is self-defeating and disruptive to continue insisting on a position when others are clearly not going to agree.  Help your kid learn how to recognize defeat.  They will also need to figure out how to keep some kind of perspective.  If lives are at risk, they should never give up.  For everything else, well, you can’t always get what you want.  Help them learn how to lose gracefully.  And, to understand the concept that you can lose the battle but win the war.

In addition to teaching your kid specific skills for effectively offering a dissenting opinion, there are also some general parenting strategies that can help your kid become better at disagreeing.

Talk dissent.  Make sure your kid knows about the importance of expressing disagreements, concerns and objections.  Point out instances of people appropriately or effectively disagreeing or even refusing to go along.  Dig up some examples where a dissenting opinion averted disaster (and times when the absence of dissent led to disaster).  Help them see that there is a difference between disagreeing with authority (potentially valuable) and disloyalty (a violation of personal integrity).

Foment dissention in the ranks.  If your kid is going to learn how to disagree with authority it might as well start with you.  You won’t have to do much if you have a naturally argumentative kid.  Your energies will be helping these kids develop some of the other dissention skills (e.g., respectful disagreement, when to shut up, etc.).  However, some parents are lucky enough to have a kid who actually tries to avoid conflict.  They will need to be gently encouraged to express their disagreement or questions about your decisions or opinions.  “You look like you disagree?”

Teach them to drum.  Dissent requires a bit of nonconformity.  They will need to march to their own beat.  Encourage independence in as many areas as possible.  Look for instances where your kid has followed their own agenda rather than following the crowd.  Make a casual comment about the importance of doing what you want sometimes, even if others don’t seem to agree.  (“I like that you think for yourself.”)  Require them to have their own opinion (“What do you think?”)

Heroic imagination.  Heroes often are paddling against the tide (and accomplishing remarkable things because of it).  Think of heroic tales that reveal the importance of standing on principle, standing your ground, not being deterred by whether others agree or are willing to join you.  (People who are psychotic have some of these same qualities but that’s another column.)  Tell stories of heroes who accomplish great things.  (It is probably a good idea to make sure you find at least some examples where the hero doesn’t die while being heroic.)

Dissent is a mainstay of democracy, though it gets a bad rap.  It is finding a balance between speaking up when you disagree versus just being a contrarian who just argues about everything.  You kid will benefit from being comfortable doing the first without turning into the latter.

originally published in




Print Friendly, PDF & Email