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)