9 tips for talking to people you disagree with

Whether it's about who does the dishes or takes out the trash, impeachment or gun control, the same rules apply.
Image: Affectionate mother and teenage daughter
We often need to have difficult conversations about things we disagree on to reach solutions, particularly with family, partners, and close friends.Hero Images / Getty Images
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By Sarah DiGiulio

There’s value in having conversations with people with whom you don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye with. You might evolve your perspective on a topic. You might bolster your argument for why you disagree. You might learn something new about your conversation partner. And when we’re respecting one another and acting like grown-ups, such conversations can be really interesting.

But perhaps too often, respect falls to the wayside and we channel our inner five-year-old-selves, rather than the cool, calm, rational adults we all can be.

We often need to have difficult conversations about things we disagree on to reach solutions, particularly with family, partners, and close friends, says Holly Weeks, an adjunct lecturer in public policy at Harvard Kennedy School of Government (she teaches about communications issues) and author of "Failure to Communicate: How Conversations Go Wrong and What You Can Do to Right Them".

Think about discussing things like when someone’s feelings have been hurt or different opinions about how two partners are spending their money. “The price tag of not having that conversation is high,” Weeks says.

And even when it’s not a disagreement that requires you solving it, there may still be costs to not having those conversations.

“Information is power,” says Susan Heitler, a Denver-based clinical psychologist and author of "The Power of Two: Secrets to a Strong & Loving Marriage".

Talking with a friend with whom you disagree about things like whether religion should be taught in schools or about whether a one-payer health care system is most judicious can lead to better understanding of the issue for both of you, she says. You may even happen upon some common ground on which you agree, she adds.

It strengthens your perspective to know more clearly why your views stand up to contradictory ones, she adds. (And if you’re someone who works in a field like politics, she says: “One of the basic rules is to know your enemy.”)

Often times topics like politics and religion get to the core of someone’s identity. One could argue that if we don’t talk about these things, then we don’t really know each other.

Matteo Trevisan, an executive coach and leadership trainer

And it can deepen your personal relationships to have those conversations and come to a better understanding of the people you spend your time with.

“Often times topics like politics and religion get to the core of someone’s identity,” adds Matteo Trevisan, an executive coach and leadership trainer at Fearless Future Coaching. “One could argue that if we don’t talk about these things, then we don’t really know each other.”

Here's how to disagree with grace

Whether you’re disagreeing with your partner about when you want to have your first child or disagreeing with a friend of a friend you’ve just met at a dinner party about income tax, the skills required to make both of those conversations worthwhile ones are pretty much the same, Weeks says.

“It’s not that the skills are different,” she says. “But the emotional load that the conversations carry is different, and is what makes them feel so different.” (And therefore the costs of those conversations going poorly feels very different, too, she says.)

Here’s how she and others suggest doing it better.

1. Decide if you want to go there

Step one is deciding whether that conversation is even worth having, Weeks says. If it’s an argument with your spouse over whether one of you is going to accept a job offer that will require the family to move, you will need to have that talk. But if it’s a matter of asking a friend why she believes abortion should be banned (and you very much disagree), it’s worth asking yourself first why you want to have that conversation. Do you want to learn why your friend feels the way she does? Do you want to change her mind?

“I don’t have to have a conversation with someone I disagree with to know something about their perspective,” Weeks says. You can read about it or find out about it from someone else. If you’re trying to change that person’s mind, however, the goal of that conversation is not then learning and understanding, Weeks says. “That’s not really a conversation; that’s a lecture.”

Think, too, about how the conversation will be received. Some people love getting into complex discussions, Weeks says. But for some people, some topics just feel like you’re pushing their buttons — which doesn’t necessarily make for pleasant dinner party conversation or coffee klatch. It’s okay to not go there, or when someone else brings up the topic to tell them you don’t want to go there.

2. Ask if you can ask about it

Still not sure if a topic you want to broach is too sensitive of one? “Just ask,” says Georgie Nightingall, a conversation coach and founder of Trigger Conversations, a London-based organization dedicated to teaching people how to have better and more meaningful conversations. “You and your conversation partner can make that decision together.” Simply stating that you know a topic is a challenging one and asking if they prefer avoiding it shows up front that you’re making potentially volatile territory safe and that you care about their perspective.

Note if the other person hesitates or answers in a guarded way, Nightingall says. That may be a reason to move on.

And perk up your ears to emotional intensity, Heitler adds. The tone of someone’s voice and absolutes like “absolutely hate” or “idiot” or “moronic” can usually tip one off that the person you are talking with doesn’t likely want to hear an alternative perspective.

3. Keep it neutral

Keeping the conversation neutral starts from the beginning. If you’re asking questions about the other person’s perspective, ask in a way that shows you know the context of a situation, but that doesn’t come off as boastful, Weeks says. And don’t ask so tentatively, either, that you invite condescension, she adds. You want to start from neutral territory where no one’s poking a stick in the other person’s emotions (or inviting the other person to do so).

Try “I know conservatives have strong opinions about X issue, but I’m not as familiar with why they feel this way about Y issue” rather than “I feel silly that I don’t know why conservatives feel this way about Y issue.” (Hint: Your question shouldn’t include an apology, Weeks says.)

4. Start off the conversation with understanding

According to Weeks, the approach is: “Grant your counterpart her premise, and then argue from there.” Instead of telling your counterpart their way of thinking is wrong, you legitimately acknowledge their point of view (yes, I understand that you want to spend more money now and invest in a higher-quality couch we’ll have for a while) and then explain why you disagree (but if we do that, we’ll have to use some of the money we’ve set aside for travel this year).

It helps put edges around the problem — and focus on which problem you need to solve, Weeks says. “We’re not arguing before we start to argue,” she adds — and it can help keep things like “you just always want to spend more than what we can afford” and “we shouldn’t have moved into such an expensive apartment to begin with” out of the conversation.

5. Look for where you agree

The goal of productive conversations is to build understanding and learning (for all parties), not tear one another apart, Trevisan says. That means no winners and no losers. “The constructive approach is to be curious and seek to understand,” he says. You do this by finding areas of agreement rather than disagreement.

“Winning a conversation is like winning a foxtrot against your dance partner,” Weeks adds. “It’s not the point.”

Heitler calls it “listening with the good ear.” Listen for what makes sense about what the person just said rather than listening for how you can show what’s wrong with it, she explains.

6. Talk less. Give the other person space to respond

Remember that it’s dialogue. Dialogue means you are both responding to one another, point after point — which is different from diatribe (where one side of the conversation drones out all others) and from debate (an attempt to prove one side right and one side wrong).

Follow this basic formula, Heitler explains: Agree (with some part of what the other person said, which acknowledges their point of views) and then add something in response.

And take a breath after you say something rather than ploughing through point after point, Trevisan adds. You want to give your conversation partner space to respond and let emotions settle, he says. “It helps the other person feel like they are being heard.”

7. Avoid using the word ‘but’

The word “but” is a subtraction sign in conversation, Heitler says. It erases what was just said. Instead of using it, respond with “and at the same time” or ask a question starting with “how” or “what,” she says.

“If you hear yourself saying ‘yes, but’ — it’s a pretty good indication you are trying to score a point,” Trevisan says — rather than keep the dialogue constructive.

8. Tell stories

Specifics, rather than generalities, keep the conversation about different perspectives, not broader opposing opinions, Weeks says.

You’re having a conversation with a coworker about why you think a new employee should be freed up to help your team instead of theirs. Rather than saying things like “we never get the resources we need” and “your team has way fewer responsibilities to begin with,” give an example. “When we had to put together that presentation last month on a tight timeline, we could have used an extra person to do a certain portion of the research, which would have saved us a day” — for instance. You’re making the argument about the project, your team’s productivity, and the office’s overall goals, rather than the argument about you specifically or your colleague.

It’s not difficult to do, Weeks says. But it does require you to think about what you say and how you phrase it before letting the words tumble out of your mouth, she says.

9. Resist the current vogue to be provocative

The best argument isn’t necessarily the one you can hashtag and will go viral on the internet. Those are punches. And communicating that way is very expensive in terms of the emotional toll they take on us, Weeks says. (Do a few choice moments from the 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign come to mind?)

“Resist the vogue for being provocative,” Weeks says. And take the opportunity when you can to neutralize the emotional load of the conversation and disarm the moment, she adds. It often comes down to word choice and the tone of your voice.

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