How to get someone to agree with you

Do you want agreement on the content or do you want agreement on the reasons for believing the content?

How to get someone to agree with you

We disagree with each other.

Some of us believe in God, some don’t. Some believe in a particular God, others in a different one. Some believe in capitalism, others in socialism, others in something else. Some of us believe that we can only know about the world through scientific means, others believe that there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in our philosophy.

Now, sometimes, we can just walk away from a disagreement. We can refuse to engage further, we can maintain our position, we can agree to disagree and move on with our lives.

But other times, we can’t. On a small scale, this is the situation with friends, family, colleagues. My wife, for example, has a certain view on the optimal level of tidiness in a household setting. I have a different view.

Naturally, I am right. But I can’t convince my wife that I am, and neither can I rationally demonstrate to her that her view isn’t just wrong but also morally decadent. And the further problem is that I love my wife and would rather like to continue living with her, so I can’t just move out and live at the level of tidiness that God intended.

On a larger scale, this is the situation in any even mildly diverse society. A believer in God has to live alongside people who don’t believe and - and this is the point - the two must agree on some things for society to function properly. But how? How can we get people so diametrically opposed in their perspectives, in their morals, in their worldviews, philosophies and experiences, how can we get them to agree on how tidy the house should be?

This was essentially the problem facing the original drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The UDHR was drafted by a committee that included members from the US, Canada, the Republic of China, France, Lebanon, Australia, Chile, France, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom. Individuals, organisations and governments from other countries were also consulted at various stages in the process.

Basically, everyone was involved. There were about 700 million different viewpoints to consider and a roughly equal number of cultural, religious, philosophical and social traditions to incorporate. Frankly, if I didn’t already know the ending, I would judge the task impossible.

We do know the ending: On 10th December, 1948, the UN General Assembly formally proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A few years later, Jacques Maritain, a French philosopher who was very influential in the creation of the UDHR, reminisced about the process:

During one of the meetings of the French National Commission of UNESCO at which the Rights of Man were being discussed, someone was astonished that certain proponents of violently opposed ideologies had agreed on the draft of a list of rights. Yes, they replied, we agree on these rights, providing we are not asked why. With the “why,” the dispute begins.

This is a very powerful insight, a beautiful insight, and our idea for the week. So let’s unpack it a bit.

Maritain points out that there are at least two levels to a disagreement. First, there’s the “what” - the substance of the disagreement, the two opposing opinions. Second, there’s the “why” - the reasons for the disagreement.

Maritain then suggests that sometimes, we can get agreement on the what so long as we don’t ask about the why. So for example, a religious person and an atheist can both agree that human beings should not be tortured, but perhaps the religious person thinks so because they think that God created human beings and it would be a sinful act to harm God’s creation in certain ways, while the atheist thinks so because they think that causing human beings pain is bad.

Sometimes, says Maritain, it's wiser not to ask about the why. So long as there’s agreement on the what, move on. It’s enough. A lot of the time, you don’t need someone to agree with your reasons for X, you just need them to agree with X.

Now, just to throw a small spanner in the works, it’s important to see that there are limitations to this insight. It’s not a universally valid tool. Sometimes, we want agreement on the why and for good reasons. For example, if my wife kisses me, we are in agreement on one thing: let’s kiss. But it’s not enough for me. I want her to kiss me because she loves me, not because she’s bored. The why matters here.


  1. There are two levels to a disagreement: what we disagree about and why we disagree.
  2. When we address the disagreement, it’s a simple and powerful move to understand what you want to address - do you want agreement on the what or do you also want agreement on the underlying why?
  3. In the case of the UDHR, it became clear that the participants only needed to agree on the what - asking for agreement on the why would have made agreement impossible.
  4. In the case of my wife kissing me, it became clear that it's really good and should happen more often.

Bonus further reading: