So you have a dominant who you feel lucky to get to submit to. You trust them. You respect their judgment. You’re comfortable following their lead, and you get a little thrill every time you get to say “yes” to them. Still, there are those occasional times when they say something that you’re pretty much certain just isn’t true. Or they make a decision you’re sure they’re going to regret later on. Or you have an idea or a plan that you think will work better than theirs.
As sexy as it is to pretend that people who dominate are infallible, let’s remember that they really aren’t. Sometimes those of us in the dominant role really are wrong. Sometimes we do wish someone had pointed out our bad decision in time to make a different one. Sometimes our plan really isn’t the best one.
But disagreeing from the submissive position can be a delicate thing.
For some of us, disagreeing with our dominant feels awful, like we’re being bad or undermining the power dynamic that means so much to us. That can lead us to keep silent even at times when we know we really ought to speak up.
Some of us have no problem disagreeing in moments when we’re convinced we’re right or when we’re feeling disagreeable, but end up regretting it later when we’re feeling our submission more keenly. Maybe we end up disagreeing at times when, in retrospect, it wasn’t really necessary or helpful. Maybe we think we’re disagreeing at appropriate times, but wish we could do it in a way less disruptive to our dynamic.
Some of us have no problem disagreeing with our partners at all, but have been ordered to read this essay by a dominant who apparently thinks we could stand to be better at it.
Most of us were never taught how to disagree in a way that’s constructive and respectful while still being clear and direct, but it can be done. Here are five steps for disagreeing well, while showing respect and investment in our power dynamic.
1. Know Why We’re Disagreeing
Before launching into a point-by-point explanation of why everything our partner just said was completely wrong, we can take a pause to get clarity on why we need to tell them that. The best answer is one that’s framed in terms of our own values, feelings or needs. “Because they’re wrong!” is not good enough. We’re looking for something like “Because I think they don’t realize how bad freeway traffic will be at this hour, and it’s important to me that we’re on time,” or “…and I think it’s important to them to be on time and I want them to get what they want.”
Getting clear on our motivation before we speak does two useful things.
First, it sets us up to disagree more constructively because we know what we are trying to achieve.
Second, knowing our own motivation can help guide us in whether to disagree or not. If our habit is to be too hesitant to disagree, a clear understanding of what’s at stake can give us the resolve that we needed. If we tend to be too quick to disagree, we can notice when our reason is nothing more than “Because I need to be right.”
2. Decide Whether or Not We Can Leave the Outcome in Their Hands
If our partner listens to our disagreement and doesn’t change their mind, what are we going to do? Are we going to accept their version of the facts, align ourselves with their judgment, and wholeheartedly commit to the success of their plan? Or is this disagreement important enough that we’d need to continue to advocate for our postion, or go our own way, or remain in opposition to our partner’s decision? Essentially: are we disagreeing from a place of submission, or as an autonomous human being?
We should try to answer that question in advance, and let our partner know from the outset which kind of disagreement this is. Either “I believe those mushrooms you’ve picked are poisonous, but I put my life in your hands,” or “Those are death caps. We should not absolutely not eat them.”
It’s tempting to try to preserve the illusion of submission by disagreeing in a submissive sounding way even when, in our hearts, we know that we’re firmly attached to our own side of the argument. We hope that our partner will be swayed, will decide to do things our way, and we won’t have to confront the fact that we were not actually prepared to do things their way.
The problem is that the pattern quickly becomes clear. Every time we raise an objection and our partner overrides it, we stop submitting. Or we go along in a foot-dragging, second-guessing, undermining kind of way that can be even worse than honest refusal. This is terribly corrosive to a power exchange dynamic. We’re teaching our partner that we’ll keep acting submissive only if they submit to our judgments or our versions of the facts. Even in cases where we really would be happy to submit to their judgment they have no way of knowing that, and they’re likely to start treating every difference of opinion as a rebellion.
It’s okay to sometimes need to step outside of the container of power exchange for a particularly important point of disagreement. We’ll all have different thresholds for doing that, depending on our submissive needs and on our relationships. The important thing is to do so openly, as soon as we realize that it’s necessary, and to never find ourselves saying “Owner, I submit to any judgment you make so long as it’s the one I wanted you to make.”
3. Lead With Our Feelings, Needs or Values
Having figured out why it’s important to us to disagree, we can start by sharing that with our partner.
Beginning a disagreement with “That’s not true,” “Why did you do that?” or “I have a better idea” sets the stage for conflict. We’re staking out a position opposite theirs and drawing a battle line between us.
An incredibly powerful technique for constructive disagreement is to instead begin by letting our partner know how we feel and what we need. Most people immediately want to sympathize with the feelings of a person who they care about, and want to help meet our needs. That doesn’t mean they’ll agree with us, but they’re much more likely to be working with us toward a mutually acceptable solution—rather than dug in on the opposing hill saying “No you’re wrong!”
This probably isn’t necessary for quick disagreements of fact like “We should have turned left back there,” but for more significant disagreements it’s a game changer. “That boy you’re flirting with is way too young for you” is the beginning of a fight. “I’m worried that your new flame isn’t old enough to be emotionally mature, and that that might spill over into our relationship,” or “I’m feeling insecure because that boy you’re flirting with is so young and pretty. I need some kind of reassurance,” are both beginnings of a productive conversation.
4. Explain Why We Believe What We Believe
Another way to disarm disagreements about facts is to qualify our statements of belief.
Unqualified statements of fact, like “We should have turned left back there,” tend to come across as arrogant. They sound like setting ourselves up as the arbitrator of objective truth and, again, set us and our partner up on opposing hills. They have a truth, we have a truth, and we’re battling it out to see whose truth wins.
“According to Google Maps, we should have turned left back there” changes the conversation entirely. We’ve removed ourselves from the authority position, and now both we and our partner can think about whether or not Google is a good authority in this situation.
Even “I think we should have turned left back there” changes the conversation. By acknowledging our belief as our belief, we implicitly acknowledge that someone else might think differently. It sounds less arrogant, less challenging. It leaves more room for us and our partner to seek the true answer together, rather than one of us having to be wrong.
There’s even a second advantage to always qualifying our statements of belief: it gives us the opportunity to double check ourselves. Sometimes when we stop to think about it, we realize that we aren’t really sure why we believe something to be true, or that our reasons are not so strong as we’d been assuming.
5. Include Tokens of Submission
Even when done well, disagreement tends to put at least a little tension on our power exchange dynamic. Especially if our partner really is wrong! Being corrected or being presented with a better plan than we had ourselves is a good thing, and the emotionally mature among us learn to value constructive disagreement—but it still can involve a moment of questioning one’s competence or authority.
We can help smooth that tension over, and reassert our commitment to following our partner’s lead, by including clear signs and signals of our submission in the way we disagree. We can be sure to use “My Lady,” or “Sir,” or whatever honorific is appropriate. We can ask permission to speak. We can make our posture submissive. We can even ask for guidance from our partner on specific phrasing or rituals they’d like us to use when we need to disagree.
Nothing can make disagreement always easy and comfortable, especially when it’s with a person who you’ve committed to obey, but these simple techniques can make the experience considerably smoother and more constructive. They aren’t techniques for being right, or for winning arguments, and if we engage our partner with the agenda of winning or certainty that we are right then they will not work. They’re techniques for turning conflict into cooperation, and used in that spirit they can make a world of difference.