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 allowing them to be torn apart, we should prioritize healthier disagreement.
11 Tips For Talking To Someone You Disagree With
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) 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).