Talking with someone we disagree with is an unpredictable nightmare for a lot of us. Tensions escalate quickly, especially in times of uncertainty.
In our present political climate, many of us are experiencing a breakdown in our ability to engage the "other side." When these channels of communication fail, it can represent a significant loss to our relationships, our families, our communities, and even our democracy.
How can we overcome such deep polarization?
This article discusses ways to improve conversations with people with whom we disagree on any given subject.
Note: This article presumes you are speaking to someone who is not posing an immediate threat of violence or abuse to you or to others. If that is the case, seek the professional guidance of a therapist or mediator.
Before we dive in, let me offer that we should advocate passionately and articulately for causes we believe in. The goal here is not to tone ourselves down or apologize for our beliefs, but to become more effective, credible, and collaborative when we're engaging with people who see the world differently.
Why does this matter? It matters because while many of us are afraid of disagreement, the fact is that disagreement is a natural part of life. It can either be healthy or unhealthy. If we seek to protect our relationships and strengthen our communities instead of allow them to be torn apart, we should prioritize healthier disagreement.
1. DO: Tell people they matter.
Before anything else, make sure you reinforce your relationship with the person. Saying things like, “Before I say anything else, I want to make sure you know that I care about you” or “I want to respect you and appreciate your perspective” goes a long way. Instead of walking into a conversation ready for a fight, which immediately puts everyone in earshot on the defensive, try warming up with “Hi, it’s me. Someone who cares.”
Remember not to say, “I care about you… but.” It's important not to qualify. Expressing that they matter, full stop, reminds both of you of the value of the relationship over and above personal beliefs and ideals. It’s a big glowing reminder that our humanity is determined by how we treat each other, not by how much we agree.
2. DON'T: Let frustration overcome you. Channel it.
It's hard to stay calm when people are saying things you strongly oppose. It can be tempting, and even cathartic in the moment, to blow up at them.
Take a moment and remember a time when you changed your mind about something. Did that experience involve someone screaming at you or shaming you? Probably not.
Our goals in difficult conversations should generally be to 1) Protect the relationship with that person, and 2) to increase your understanding and increase the chances that you will be understood. These goals are much harder than exploding.
In those times when you feel like a boiler ready to burst, take a deep breath and focus all of that energy into just… making more sense. Don’t explode, don’t lash out. Channel that frustration into pure, unmitigated reason. Make that energy work on your behalf.
If you can’t channel it at that moment, there's absolutely no problem with saying, "I'm too angry, I need to take a break." Go blow off some steam, and come back to this later. There’s always time for a pause if you're in over your head. Because if you don't slow down and pause, you risk putting the entire relationship in jeopardy. You might lose any credibility or trust that you have been working to build.
So protect your investment in that person, and do everything you can to stay in productive communication with them (except in cases when stronger boundaries are needed or it's necessary to end the relationship for your own safety).
3. DO: Acknowledge fears under the surface.
In my book, I argue that all conflict has some kind of fear at its core. Humans generally want to live and not die. We want to be free and not controlled. We fear chaos and seek meaning and order. It’s important to recognize which fears are driving someone's belief structure.
- “I can understand how you would feel if you believed that if _____ doesn’t happen the world will fall apart.”
- “I'm afraid of seeing my country crumble.”
- “Do you know what I’m scared of?”
It’s important for strong emotional connections to understand the things we have in common. Acknowledging fears shows empathy, and it's a reminder of our shared human experience. Sometimes, fear may be the biggest thing we have in common. Don’t rush past this important and very real element. If a conversation is stuck in the mud and not going anywhere, examining and sharing fears can get things moving in a more fruitful direction.
4. DON’T: Assume the worst.
The vast majority of us want to be good. We want to fight for the best possible world and do the right thing. We may have different visions of how to get there, but it's important to assume someone means well until we have definitive proof that they don't. Try to make a point to say things like:
- “I can understand where you are coming from.”
- “I can see your intentions come from a good place.”
- “You make a good point there.”
Show that you see the person beneath the opinions. Show that you assume they have good intentions unless you have direct evidence to the contrary. Try to interpret what they say in a generous light, even if you plan to push back against their ideas.
What does this accomplish? It shows our conversation partner that we aren't hellbent on attacking them just because they are on the “other” side. Extending goodwill is both reasonable and neighborly. It creates a spirit of collaboration. Even if we think someone is in espousing weird or problematic ideas, telling them that we hope for and expect the best from them builds a bridge. Except in extreme cases where someone is saying something blatantly malicious, try to see what value or merit their ideas hold. Give credit where it’s due, and someone is more likely to open up and have a real conversation.
5. DO: Share your sources.
The information we use to construct and uphold our beliefs is incredibly important. Where we get this information is also important. The problem is, in the digital age, there’s a lot of convincing false or misleading information floating around in the world.
Share your sources of information, like articles, books, or documentaries—and be ready for the possibility that people will critique those sources or reject their legitimacy. That’s all part of the process of social negotiation and healthy disagreement. If your sources are legitimate, they should have no problem holding up under scrutiny.
If someone rejects your sources, try to find sources you can both agree to accept as valid, even if you understand those sources might have bias. Here's a handy guide for validating sources of information.
6. DON’T: Launch verbal grenades.
Some words can be perceived as emotionally aggressive and create the opposite effect of collaborative, productive discourse. This includes any of the following:
- Name-calling—words like "stupid," "ignorant," "crazy"
- Blanket statements that include the words “always” or “never”
- “Zingers,” “gotcha” moments, or clap backs—these are momentarily gratifying but may erode your relationship with the person
- Personal (ad hominem) attacks
- Labels that people have not adopted themselves
- Swear words (I’m not opposed to swearing in general, but in difficult conversations, swearing can be distracting and heighten emotions and defensiveness)
Of course, we are able to use these words if we so choose; it’s a free country. But if we really want to be credible and trusted during a disagreement, if we want to maximize our impact and understanding, we will take caution. These words breed hostility and anxiety. When we use them, those who might have been sympathetic to our cause may now think we are a jerk.
7. DO: Show you understand, even if you don't agree.
We can’t play basketball if we don’t know what actions constitute a violation or a foul, right?
The same is true when we disagree. If we walk into a conversation and don’t take the time to actually listen and understand the nuance of what someone is saying or believing, we are playing the game without understanding the rules. We might say things that don’t make sense or fit the situation, which could mean our participation becomes frustrating or irrelevant. We might also miss opportunities to make good points that we could have made, if we had only paid attention.
Everyone wants to be heard, especially in disagreements. Not being heard, or having our words twisted, creates a lot of resentment. So take the time to listen.
And after we've listened, then make a point to reflect—literally, and out loud. Let them know that we listened:
- “So if I understand you correctly…”
- “It seems like you are saying ______, is that accurate?”
- “Can I summarize what I’m understanding so far?”
8. DON’T: Use sarcasm and refrain from speaking in sound bites.
Sarcasm, especially sarcasm in online conversations, can be particularly risky for discourse because we can't always hear or accurately interpret auditory tone. It can be hard to know when someone is being facetious. Try to say exactly what you mean and don't crack jokes at someone’s expense. Remember, your long-term relationship with that person is more important than the present conversation. If you want to be influential with them, if you want to stay in community with them, you will seek to use direct language that doesn't leave room for misinterpretation.
In addition to refraining from sarcasm, take the time to spell out a longer response or explanation instead of trying to use sound bites that can be taken the wrong way or seen as cocky. If the conversation matters to you, take the time to patiently spell it out.
All of this said, using humor to lighten the mood can be helpful when things start getting too intense. But use caution if you are talking about a serious topic where people have experienced pain. In such a case, humor will more than likely come across as insensitive.
9. DON’T: Be condescending.
Nobody likes a know-it-all.
Even if you're dripping in academic knowledge, even if you can talk circles around someone, you will alienate them the minute you act superior. Having more knowledge than someone else does not make you a better person. Note that we're not talking about confidence, here. Confidence is important. Ultimately, being condescending is about control: seeking to control or force someone to agree with us and implying that if they don’t, they’re bad or stupid.
How do we stop being condescending? Here are a few ideas:
- Put an end to explaining things people may already know, interrupting, acting as if you are the final authority, or being incredulous that someone doesn’t know something
- If you're writing to someone, read your draft out loud and take a good, long look at your tone
- Ask someone else to read it and to give their honest opinion.
- Admit the possibility that you could be wrong or lack information. Recognize your limits. Qualify your ideas with “I-speak” statements like, "the way I see it," “in my experience,” "in my research," or “in my opinion.”
10. DO: Teach and be teachable.
Good teachers are patient, gracious, and give people the space to discover things at their own pace. They don’t get mad at someone for not knowing something. Importantly, good teachers don’t mistake “uninformed” for “stupid.” Smart people can believe untrue or misleading ideas, and it doesn’t make them less smart. It means they might have gaps in their understanding or unreliable sources. Intelligence and education are different; remember not to confuse the two.
Be teachable, too. When we're speaking to a peer, it goes a long way to allow ourselves to be challenged. Saying things like “I never thought about it that way,” or “That’s new to me, I’m going to read up on that” shows that we are a co-learner. If we want to teach, we need to be open to being taught.
A two-way exchange of information equalizes the power dynamic. People are more likely to open up when they are talking to a peer who is still on a learning journey, just like themselves.
11. DO: Thank them for disagreeing.
This last one is big: Say "thank you" when someone takes the time to disagree. It may not seem like it, but disagreement is truly a gift. When someone disagrees with us, they didn’t have to take precious time out of their life to engage. They don’t owe us their attention or courtesy. When they do choose to disagree with us in healthy ways, they are offering a courtesy. Try to recognize and honor the awkward beauty of that exchange.
In conclusion: Healthy disagreement is worth the effort.
It is indeed possible to have a conversation with just about anyone, on just about any topic, and not lose our nerve. However, healthy disagreement doesn't magically happen. It's hard work. It requires skills, practice, and courage. The work is worth it, however, because we need to disagree well in order to have strong communities and a strong society.
As we condition our conversational muscles, remember that we can’t control other people. We can't decide who must agree with us, when, or to what extent.
But we can build bridges instead of bonfires.
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