Supreme Court Justices Dealing with Their Disagreements

SeedlingsOn this blog, we have been discussing the question, “Is it possible that there are immature and mature ways to handle our disagreements?” To help answer this question, I have, very tentatively, proposed five levels of maturity for providing criticism (see here) and five levels of maturity for responding to criticism (see here and here).

In defending these levels of maturity, I have pointed out that I have made videotapes of individuals acting out scenarios in which they portray characters who are dealing with disagreements. In some, the actors use a style that match the more immature levels, and in others, they use a style that match the more mature levels. video-watchingI have found that independent viewers of these videotapes tend to rate the actors as more likable and respected when they displayed a style that match the descriptions of the higher levels of maturity.

golden ruleI have used some other arguments, as well. For example, I asked people to consider the golden rule, and then ask themselves, “When I criticize someone, how would I like the other party to ideally respond?”  Most people clearly prefer that the other party would respond in a manner that is very consistent with the higher levels of maturity that I have outlined on this blog.

As I continue to write about these issues, I’m always on the lookout for other ways to bring home the idea that there are indeed mature and immature ways to provide and respond to criticism.

Supreme Court Justice Breyer Interview with Stephen Colbert

Supreme Court Justice Breyer Interview with Stephen Colbert

Well, with this in mind, recently I happened to be watching the Late Show with Stephen Colbert and he had as a guest, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. The two got to discussing how the justices deal with their own disagreements, and as it turned out, it seems to me that it is relevant to the maturity discussion. After all, supreme court justices are selected from among the most highly regarded judges in our land, and they surely get plenty of practice dealing with disagreements. So, for your consideration, here’s the transcript of the Late Show discussion (For those who would like to see the entire exchange themselves, it can be viewed on Youtube here).

The Late Show Discussion Between Colbert and Supreme Court Justice Breyer Let’s talk about disagreeing. You go to work everyday, and manage to get your job done with a group of nine people, half of whom disagree with you vehemently on a host of different issues. How do you guys manage to keep doing your job while the rest of the government can’t?

Justice Breyer: When we are sitting around that table, well, I don’t know about, let’s leave the rest of the government out of it, but I’ll say that when the rest of us are sitting around that table discussing, the nine of us discussing, I’ve been there over 20 years, 21, I have never heard a voice raised in anger, I have never heard one member of our court say something insulting about another, not even as a joke. Of course we disagree. We disagree about half the time; we’re unanimous about half the time; and we’re 5 to 4, and it’s not always the same 4, maybe 20 percent or so, and we feel it possibly quite strongly, but the discussion is professional, it is serious, but it is not personal, and we are good friends despite the fact that we agree some of the time and we disagree others of the time.

How Does Supreme Court Justice Breyer’s Description of How the Members of the Court Handle Their Disagreements Match this Blog’s Description of Mature Ways to Deal with Disagreements?

On this blog, one of the most mature ways to provide criticism is described as follows:

Illustration by Deanna Martinez

The criticizer states the criticism without bodily attacks, damaging property, glares, insults, threats, or shouts, and with enough details so that the criticized person, if he or she wills, can improve the behavior, idea, or appearance.  If the person receiving the criticism becomes defensive or angry, the criticizer empathizes without returning, glares, insults, threats, or shouts.

One of the most mature ways to respond to criticism, as described on this blog is:

People at this level listen to the criticizer in a supportive, warm, friendly style, and then make it clear that they fully understand what was said.  Moreover, they put the criticizer at ease by making statements that indicate that the wise learn from criticism.  Some time is spent on showing that they are thinking about the criticism.  If, after thinking about the criticism the criticism is deemed to be correct, they make a statement frankly indicating, “I can see your ideas have merit and I intend to use them in the future.”  If they are not sure if they agree, they make a statement indicating that they are very interested in what was said, plan to think a little more about this over the next few days and then they will be ready to discuss this further.  If, after thinking about the criticism, the criticism is deemed to be incorrect, a statement is made designed to disagree without being disagreeable.  More specifically, a sense of humor, some listening in a caring way and a few smiles help to traverse rough terrain.  As the episode winds down, the criticizer is encouraged to feel comfortable communicating suggestions in the future.

BreyerObviously Justice Breyer’s comment about his court’s style of dealing with disagreements was brief. When you are on a show like The Late Show, it is understandable that replies to questions must be fairly brief, and in a conversational manner. So, we can’t say with certainty that his response is a perfect match with this blog’s description of a mature style. But note that in over 20 years, despite regularly disagreeing with one another, he never heard a voice raised in anger, or heard one member of our court say something insulting about another, not even as a joke. And he mentioned, as well, that they are all good friends. This seems an excellent match with the phrase in this blog’s description of a mature response to criticism that states, “People at this level listen to the criticizer in a supportive, warm, friendly style.”

In my view, the way Justice Breyer describes the style used by the Supreme Court Justices to discuss their disagreements is well worth thinking about as we think about our own style for discussing disagreements.

Well, those are some thoughts for today. May all of my readers have a wonderful week, and here’s to hoping you’ll join us again real soon on “From Insults to Respect.”



Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on.  This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional and social intelligence.  To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.

Abusive Criticism In Big Time Sports
On Slamming Insubordinate Student Down

About the Author

Jeffrey Rubin grew up in Brooklyn, received his PhD from the University of Minnesota and has taught conflict resolution there as well as at a psychiatric clinic, a correctional facility and a number of public schools. He has published articles on anger and conflict resolution and has authored three novels.

Write Your Comment

You may use these HTML tags and attributes:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>