Black and white portrait of Ray Dalio: Narrator and Creator of Life Principles

Principles are ways of successfully dealing with reality to get what you want out of life.

Ray Dalio, one of the world’s most successful investors and entrepreneurs, cites principles as his key to success.

Life Principle

Appreciate the art of thoughtful disagreement.

When two people believe opposite things, chances are that one of them is wrong. It pays to find out if that someone is you. That’s why I believe you must appreciate and develop the art of thoughtful disagreement. In thoughtful disagreement, your goal is not to convince the other party that you are right—it is to find out which view is true and decide what to do about it. In thoughtful disagreement, both parties are motivated by the genuine fear of missing important perspectives.

To do this well, approach the conversation in a way that conveys that you’re just trying to understand. Use questions rather than make statements. Conduct the discussion in a calm and dispassionate manner, and encourage the other person to do that as well. Remember, you are not arguing; you are openly exploring what’s true. Be reasonable and expect others to be reasonable. If you’re calm, collegial, and respectful you will do a lot better than if you are not. You’ll get better at this with practice.

To me, it’s pointless when people get angry with each other when they disagree because most disagreements aren’t threats as much as opportunities for learning. People who change their minds because they learned something are the winners, whereas those who stubbornly refuse to learn are the losers. That doesn’t mean that you should blindly accept others’ conclusions. You should be what I call open-minded and assertive at the same time—you should hold and explore conflicting possibilities in your mind while moving fluidly toward whatever is likely to be true based on what you learn. Some people can do this easily while others can’t. A good exercise to make sure that you are doing this well is to describe back to the person you are disagreeing with their own perspective. If they agree that you’ve got it, then you’re in good shape. I also recommend that both parties observe a “two-minute rule” in which neither interrupts the other, so they both have time to get all their thoughts out.

Some people worry that operating this way is time consuming. Working through disagreements does take time but it’s just about the best way you can spend it. What’s important is that you prioritize what you spend time on and who you spend it with. There are lots of people who will disagree with you, and it would be unproductive to consider all their views. It doesn’t pay to be open-minded with everyone. Instead, spend your time exploring ideas with the most believable people you have access to.

If you find you’re at an impasse, agree on a person you both respect and enlist them to help moderate the discussion. What’s really counterproductive is spinning in your own head about what’s going on, which most people are prone to do—or wasting time disagreeing past the point of diminishing returns. When that happens, move on to a more productive way of getting to a mutual understanding, which isn’t necessarily the same thing as agreement. For example, you might agree to disagree.

Why doesn’t thoughtful disagreement like this typically occur? Because most people are instinctively reluctant to disagree. For example, if two people go to a restaurant and one says he likes the food, the other is more likely to say “I like it too” or not say anything at all, even if that’s not true. The reluctance to disagree is the “lower-level you’s” mistaken interpretation of disagreement as conflict. That’s why radical open-mindedness isn’t easy: You need to teach yourself the art of having exchanges in ways that don’t trigger such reactions in yourself or others. This was what I had to learn back when Bob, Giselle, and Dan told me I made people feel belittled.

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