How to Talk to Someone You Disagree With

This is a blog post for me more than anyone, because I am not a big fan of conflict.

By my lights, right now is the worst time in history to have a political conversation with someone. We all have our perspectives and opinions, and those opinions are driven by various levels of verifiable information and, often, excessive amounts of emotion. But few of us are able to spell out why we believe what we believe.

How to disagree

When you’re speaking to someone you disagree with, it can feel natural and automatic to point out your differences.

As a result, most of us don’t talk to people we disagree with. Instead, we huddle together with people that we agree with, and make ourselves feel good by agreeing with each other about our conclusions, without getting into much about why we believe what we believe.

And so, nothing really changes. Instead, we just disagree, and we build up our resentments about the people we disagree with, and imagine the differences between us and them as being perpetual and insurmountable.

Even though I dislike conflict, I hate inertia even more. And that’s why I want to explore this topic. I want to engage more with people that I disagree with, and I want people in general to engage more with people they disagree with. Not to conflict with them, but to learn from them. I suspect — or at least hope — that if one person leads a conversation with another person to learn from them, the other person will likely learn from that one person as well.

So I’m thinking of this is a way to move forward together.

My approach is to apply some SagePresence principles to this concept, and lay them out here. I’m confident that they will work, because I’ve used them successfully in many other contexts, but not nearly enough in this one.

Solving the Frustration Barrier

One of the biggest obstacles we experience when we try to talk to someone we disagree with is frustration. This frustration can come from countless sources. It might be held over from past conversations we’ve had with the same person or with other people, or even from other conversations that we’ve observed on similar topics. It might be because the other person doesn’t seem to be thinking straight, or communicating well or listening to us. It might be because they seem to be grounding their beliefs in unverifiable information. It might be because the other person’s apparent values are offensive to our sensibilities, or because our values are feeling threatened.

It almost doesn’t matter where it comes from. The important thing is to recognize it’s there, and to recognize that your frustration is yours. The other person isn’t giving it to you, you’re creating it yourself. As soon as you recognize this, you will find that the frustration has lost its power over you, and you can choose to do with it what you want to.

But before the frustration hits in the first place, there are things you can do to ward it off in advance, ideally before the conversation even starts. (Plus, you can come back to do these things again if the frustration shows up later, as it almost certainly will.)

First, think of the humanity of the person that you are talking to, and ask yourself, what can I appreciate about this person? It doesn’t matter what you come up with: You can appreciate him for engaging you in conversation, or for being willing to answer your questions. It doesn’t matter as long as your answer is authentic and you truly feel appreciative of the other person. The warm positivity of the appreciation will keep the hot negativity of frustration at bay.

Second, be curious. Be truly interested in learning what’s behind the other person’s opinions, and how the other person thinks. You’ll find that you literally can’t be curious and judgmental at the same time. Being truly curious means being open to learn something new, while being judgmental is all about confirming something you already know.

Laying the Groundwork

Before the conversation starts, get clear on three things:

  1. What inspired you to have this conversation
  2. What your goal is for this conversation
  3. What you’re going to do to achieve that goal

Then lay these intentions out, both when you invite the other person to the conversation, and again when the conversation starts. It can sound something like this:

“I wanted to have this conversation because our opinions are clearly so different. My goal is to understand your opinions better, because if I understand yours better, I think I might understand my own better. So, really, all I want to do in this conversation is ask you a bunch of questions. Is that okay?”

A word about your goal: I know that what you really want is to change the other person’s mind with this conversation, but you can’t “own” that result. The only results you can own are on your side of the table. So what I’m asking you to do is to focus on the other person to create a change in yourself.

Leading the Conversation

The main body of the conversation needs to be what you said it would be when you lay the groundwork up above. My recommendation is to conduct the conversation almost like an interview. There is a simple 3-part process to follow here. Simple, but not necessarily easy:

  1. Ask an open question. Not a yes/no question, but something they need to think about to answer.
  2. Listen intently, to both their words and their intended meaning. As they speak, smile and nod encouragingly to express your appreciation nonverbally. This is a great physical method for staying in appreciation in the face of potentially disagreeable material.
  3. Repeat their answer back to them to see if you understand it. Try to distill what they say down to as simple a concept as possible without leaving anything important out.

If you find an area that doesn’t make sense to you or that seems inconsistent with other things said, go ahead and ask about it. Don’t attack it, but inquire into it. Use language like, “That confuses me. Can I ask more about that?” or “That sounds different from something you said a minute ago. Can we look at that?”

Wrapping Up

When it feels like you’ve succeeded — when you’ve actually learned something about how the other person thinks, for example — feel free to wrap up the conversation. Thank the other person, tell them what difference the conversation made for you. Then ask them if they have any questions for you. It’s okay if the answer is no, but don’t be surprised to discover that you have inspired them to want to learn more about you.

And regardless of what happens, congratulate yourself. You went out of your way to expand your world, to connect with another human being, and, if not to take down a wall, to at least build a window in one.

 


 

What do you think of this? Are you willing to give it a shot? Have you done something like this already? Do you have any advice or stories to share from your experience? Let me know what you think below. Let’s get a conversation going!

6 Comments

  1. Emily Spende on February 7, 2017 at 9:45 am

    I really needed to read this and plan to share, if all right with you.
    What has struck me the most is your paragraph about curiosity: one cannot be simultaneously curious and judgmental.
    Thank you, Pete.

    • Pete Machalek on February 7, 2017 at 1:25 pm

      I’m so glad this hit home for you, Emily! By all means, please share this at will. (That’s what it’s here for!)

  2. Bruce Girton on February 7, 2017 at 1:20 pm

    A thoughtful post. I think I grasp the inspiration for it, and I agree in principle. However, I worry that similar articles may have been published in Germany in the early 1930s.

    I feel obliged to point out that while it is possible to talk to chimps and dolphins, it is harder to envision productive conversations that might result. “First of all, before we get started, does anyone need to use the restroom? No? Then does anyone want another fish and/or banana? …”

    If you wake up inside “The Shining”, you do not try to reason with Jack – you climb out the bathroom window into the snow before he finishes breaking down the door with his fire ax.

    • Pete Machalek on February 7, 2017 at 1:41 pm

      Thanks for commenting, Bruce! I get where you’re coming from in your worry. May I suggest that maybe not enough articles like this were published in Germany in the early 30s? Maybe if more productive conversations had been had and less name-calling had been done (like calling people chimps or dolphins or ax-murderers), things would have headed in a better direction.

      On the other hand, if you literally find yourself trying to talk to animals or being threatened with an ax-murderer, I would agree that conversation isn’t the best recourse available to you.

  3. Judy Straalsund on February 14, 2017 at 8:21 pm

    Thanks for this post. I’ve been realizing that I need to start talking with some people who are have a different perspective on the current political situation than I do but, like you, I dislike conflict. Listening well is a a strength and goal of mine, and your perspective added some helpful tips.

    • Pete Machalek on February 14, 2017 at 9:35 pm

      I really appreciate hearing this, Judy! As you head down the path, don’t expect too much from yourself at the beginning. But note that every time you do it, you’ll get stronger, because the practice will build your muscles. I’d love to hear how things go for you as you proceed!

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