10 Tips for Talking to People You Can't Agree With

6. Don’t drag anyone else into your debate.

Posted Nov 22, 2016

WAYHOME studio/Shutterstock
Source: WAYHOME studio/Shutterstock

This holiday season, you could easily find yourself in situations where someone raises politically divisive topics. The holidays are likely to bring you in contact with relatives and in-laws who may have different views, creating uncomfortable feelings, awkward silences, or outright confrontations. You may be sitting with an in-law who's gloating over the victory of his preferred candidate in front of your aunt who is clearly mourning the loss of her candidate. Whether caught in the middle, or on opposite sites of an escalating argument, you wish you could vanish, but instead you’re drawn in. Fortunately, there are ways to cope with the interpersonal strains, thanks to new insights on the difference between diversity and disagreement.

In a recent study, Michigan State University’s Robert Lupton and Georgia State University’s Judd Thornton examined the ways individuals interact over social networks when they share differing views. Disagreement, they argue, is the extent to which you are exposed to people with whom you and others come out on opposite sides of social issues. You are the outlier compared to them. Diversity, by contrast, is the extent to which your social network allows there to be a variety of opinions expressed and respected. Everyone in your social network may be in complete agreement that Candidate X was best suited for the position. You, however, believe in Candidate Y. In a diverse social network, there are plenty of X's and Y's—and maybe some Z's.

The Lupton and Thornton study was interested in predicting who would be most likely to vote based on whether their networks were characterized by disagreement or diversity. As it turned out, when there was enough disagreement present in a network, people became less likely to vote. Diversity of opinions had no effect on voting behavior. It’s only if you feel that you’re alone in your opposition to those you interact with that you’ll opt out of the political process, according to this finding. Perhaps people believe their opinions count less when they’re in opposition to the opinions of those they care about, and so they disengage. Being part of a network of diverse opinions doesn’t seem to have that suppressive effect.

Let’s take a look at this finding as it relates to understanding how we can get along with people whose beliefs differ from our own. These 10 tips could help you communicate more effectively:

  1. Appreciate the value of diversity. When you and those in your network feel compelled to arrive at the same viewpoints, it will be painfully difficult for you to experience a division between you and anyone else. We gain from sharing opinions and, in the process, feel more invested in society at large.
  2. Listen to the other side with an open mind. Diversity of opinions means just that. Recognizing that you can learn from each other is a sign of a healthy relationship with those you care about.
  3. Think before you voice your own opinion: Will you be able to justify it? A poorly-conceived argument will only place you on the defensive when you realize its weaknesses. Don’t set yourself up for being shot down—it will only contribute to bad feelings.
  4. Keep your cool even when the conversation gets hot. Being able to appreciate diversity means that you don’t go off the deep end when someone expresses a dissenting opinion. If you let your emotions get in the way of your logic, you’ll not only lose the argument, but further contribute to animosity in the room.
  5. Try to find common ground on which you can agree. It may seem impossible at the time to acknowledge the validity of someone else’s argument, but adults should be able to appreciate the gray between the black and white of your viewpoints.
  6. Don’t drag others into the debate. Keep things focused on you and whoever you’re having the disagreement with. Trying to form coalitions or sides will only escalate bad feelings.
  7. Avoid personal insults. It probably goes without saying that you should keep your communication respectful. There’s no reason to start assaulting someone else’s personal qualities because you happen to have differing views.
  8. Keep a sense of humorEven when serious differences of opinion are being discussed, try to find ways to maintain your perspective. See if there are humorous aspects in your diversity of opinions, and allow those to balance out the negative.
  9. Try to change the person’s mind, but don’t persist if it’s not working. Once you get past a certain point, nothing you say will matter. It's best to move on and talk about your areas of shared interests and views.
  10. Reinforce the positive feelings you have toward each other, despite your differences. If your relationship is long and strong enough, this too shall pass. Events external to you and those with whom you differ eventually alter one, or both, of your opinions. Continuing to maintain an air of openness and mutual respect will allow you to survive the changing political and social environment.

Fulfillment of your relationships with those you care about depends on being able to communicate across the divides that sometimes develop between us. These tips should help you keep the lines of communication open, even across what may seem like irreconcilable differences of opinion.

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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2016


Lupton, R., & Thornton, J. (2016). Disagreement, diversity, and participation: Examining the properties of several measures of political discussion network characteristics. Political Behavior, doi:10.1007/s11109-016-9371-7