Alana Conner, Ph.D.

Cultural Moment

How to Discuss Your Differences With Others

Keep your New Year's resolution to learn about the other side.

Posted Jan 24, 2018

Fibonacci Blue/Wikimedia
Source: Fibonacci Blue/Wikimedia

For the past few New Years, people ranging from the Secretary-General of the United Nations to the editors of the Iowa State Daily have resolved to bridge cultural divides by reaching out to people different from themselves.

As many people soon discover, though, keeping this New Year’s resolution is easier said than done.

Let’s face it: Dealing with people who have values, beliefs, and backgrounds different from our own is often stressful, sometimes exasperating, and occasionally even threatening. Yet research shows again and again that grappling with diverse opinions and backgrounds makes us better decision makers, more creative problem solvers, and more empathic people.

So how can we keep our resolution to burst our bubbles and deal with difference?

Let me suggest a conversation technique called CLARIFY, which draws on both my own and other people's research. The letters in CLARIFY stand for: Check your motives, Listen, Ask, Repeat, use I-statements, Find common ground, and adopt a "Yet" mindset. You can use the CLARIFY technique to discuss any kind of difference, including political, religious, ethnic, class, age, or gender differences, as well as everyday differences of opinion.

Here’s how to use CLARIFY when discussing your differences with another person:

1. Check your motives. Why do you want to have a conversation with this person? If your intention is to change their mind, humiliate them, or show them that they are wrong, then avoid the talk. You and your conversation partner will likely be so focused on defending yourselves and vanquishing each that you will altogether fail to listen or learn.

Instead, approach your conversation as an anthropologist trying to understand someone deeply different than you. Who is this person? Why do they think, feel, believe, value, and act the way they do? Even if you know some of these answers, give the other side a chance to share their heads and hearts. It will make them more open to hearing from your side of the aisle.

2. Listen carefully. Aim to understand what the speaker means and feels, not just the words they're using. Paying close attention shows respect, which is the foundation of learning from each other.

3. Ask open-ended questions. Start your queries with “how” or “why” to elicit deeper answers that go beyond "yes" or "no." Asking open-ended questions will not only help you better understand the other person's perspective, but also demonstrate your genuine interest in exchanging information—not just winning your point. Here are some examples:

"How does that make you feel?"
"Why do you think you react that way?"
"How do you reach that conclusion?"

4. Repeat what the person has said, your interpretation of what they mean, and how you think they are feeling. This not only makes the person feel heard and understood, but also gives you time and space to consider what you think and feel. Some helpful prompts include:

"So what I hear you saying is…”
"I am sensing that you feel…”
"Let me make sure I understand: You believe that…”

5. Use I-statements to express your thoughts, feelings, and values without portraying them as universal truths or attacks on the other person. These "I" phrases include: I feel, I believe, I think, I have read, and I learned.

Consider how I-statements can turn inflammatory statements into inviting ones:

Bad: "Science shows that race is a myth, and anyone who doesn't believe this is an ignorant bigot."

Good: "I've read scientific studies suggesting that race is a social construction, not a biological fact."

Bad: "People suffer because God is punishing them."

Good: "I learned from the Bible that people suffer because God is punishing them." 

Bad: "You are a sexist pig."

Good: "When you say that women are inferior, I feel angry."

PRO TIP: "I think you are wrong," "I feel you are narrow-minded," and the like are not effective I-statements because the other person will like experience them as personal attacks.

6. Find common ground, especially shared values, and point it out often. Try these phrases:

"I sense we share the desire to do what is right."
“I appreciate your honesty."
"It seems we both care deeply about our children's futures."

7. Adopt a “yet” mindset: Be an optimist. You may not understand each other yet, but keep talking and listening. You are at least guaranteed to learn more about a different perspective. You are also more likely to develop empathy and tactics for getting along. As psychologist Carol Dweck has shown, adopting the mindset that people and things can grow and change will likely motivate you to do your best.

Of course, you could just keep on avoiding exploring your differences with other people. But our failures to reach out across political, gender, racial, ethnic, regional, age, and class divides are deepening the fractures in our nation and world. This year, do your part for world peace and your own personal development. Practice your cross-cultural conversation skills, and let bipartisanship begin with you.