• Why it’s so hard to talk to people you disagree with
  • Why it’s important to build credibility and influence even if you don’t win someone over to your side
  • 11 ways to improve your conversations when you disagree with someone

Freedom to Disagree

“In this country, I have the freedom to say whatever I want!”

Yes, you have freedom of speech, and that freedom is amazing (though I disagree that freedom of speech is absolute — for example, you can’t yell “bomb” in an airport!).

In cultures that hold freedom of speech as a sacred and untouchable right, some of us feel a heavy hand of censorship if we put some rules in place for how we engage each other.

In this article, I’m not going to talk about what you can or can’t say. I’m going to talk about what you should and shouldn’t say to have a more meaningful conversation with someone across a big difference of opinion. This article focuses on how to increase your chances that someone who holds a difference of opinion will actually want to talk to you (and it won’t be horrible).

I’ve come across these kinds of disagreement conversations a lot recently. My partner is a scientist and together we host a science podcast. There’s been a lot of misleading scientific information floating around in these days of pandemic. Just today I got into several social media conversations with people who radically disagree with me about science.

If it makes you feel better, even though I specialize in conflict, these conversations are still hard to navigate. I still make mistakes.

Talking with someone when you disagree is an unpredictable nightmare for a lot of us. Tensions escalate quickly, especially in times of uncertainty. I’ve compiled a list of 11 ways to improve your conversations with people who disagree with you on any given subject.

With these guidelines in hand, you can (and should) still argue passionately and articulately. The goal here is not to tone yourself down or apologize for your beliefs, but to become more effective when you’re engaging people who see the world differently.


How to Talk to Someone You Disagree With

The basic idea here is that it is important to build credibility even if you never agree with someone. Being credible in someone’s eyes means you have influence. Even if you don’t change their mind, if all you do is make someone thing about an idea in a way they haven’t considered, you have made an impact on their life.

1) Do: Tell people they matter

Before ANYTHING else, make sure you reinforce your relationship with the person — no if’s, and’s, or but’s. “First before I say anything else I want to make sure you know I care about you,” or “I respect you as a colleague and appreciate your perspective” goes a long way. Instead of walking into a conversation with guns blazing, which immediately puts everyone in earshot on the defensive, warm up with “Hi, it’s me, someone who cares.”

Remember it’s not “I care about you …but.” Don’t qualify. Expressing that they matter reminds you both of the value of the relationship over and above beliefs and ideas that may seek to tear you apart. 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: Be condescending

Nobody likes a know-it-all. Don’t be that guy. Even if you are dripping in academic knowledge, even if you can talk circles around someone, you will alienate them the minute you act superior. Having more knowledge than someone does not make you a better person. I’m not talking about confidence, confidence is important. Ultimately, being condescending is about control. You are seeking to control or force someone to agree with you and implying that if they don’t, they’re stupid.

That doesn’t build trust, and the person is likely to run for the hills.

How does someone stop being condescending? Here are a couple of ideas:

  • Read your draft out loud and take a good long look at your tone
  • Ask someone else to read it and to give their honest opinion. Sometimes even tweaking a sentence or two can help reduce a holier-than-thou vibe
  • Look for clues you are talking down. Sometimes this can be very subtle in tone. Things like explaining things people may already know, interrupting, acting as if you are the final authority, or being incredulous that someone doesn’t know something are all irritatingly cocky behaviors.
  • Admit the possibility that you could be wrong or lack information. Recognize your limits. You can still argue strongly for an idea and offer sources, but you are not God. Qualify your statements with “I-speak” statements like, “in my experience,” or “in my opinion.”

3) Do: Acknowledge the fears under the surface

I argue in my book that all conflict and disagreement has some kind of fear at its core. Humans generally want to live and not die. We generally want to be free and not controlled. We fear chaos. It’s important to recognize which fears that are driving a certain belief structure.

  • “I can understand how you would feel that if _____ doesn’t happen the world will fall apart.”
  • “I don’t want to live in poverty either.”
  • “I don’t want my country to crumble.”
  • “You know what I’m scared of?”

Acknowledging fears shows empathy and remembers our shared human experience. It’s important for healthy emotional connection to remember the things we have in common. All too often, fear may be the most we have in common. So don’t rush past this important player. Fears play a big role in difficult conversations. Sometimes if a conversation is stuck in the mud and not going anywhere, examining fears can get things moving again in a fruitful direction.

4) Don’t: Assume the worst

In addition to fears, for the most part, people seek to do the right thing. We want to be good, we want to fight for the best world. Make a point to say things like:

  • “I can understand where you are coming from”
  • “I see that you mean well.”
  • “You make a good point there.”

Show that you see the person beneath the words, that you assume they have good intentions unless you have profound evidence to the contrary. Before anything else, try interpreting what they say in a generous light.

What does this accomplish? It shows the person that you are not 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 you think someone is in a weird place and not trying to do the right thing, telling them that you believe and expect the best from them builds a lot of trust. Except in extreme cases where someone is saying something blatantly malicious, try to see what value or merit their ideas hold. Even if it’s 5%. Acknowledging that 5% shows you are a fair and reasonable conversation partner. Give credit where it’s due, and they will be much more likely to talk to you.

5) Do: Show them you can understand their perspective, even if you don’t agree with it

You can’t play basketball if you don’t know what actions create a point or a foul, right?

The same is true when we disagree. If you walk into a conversation and don’t take the time to actually listen and understand the nuance of what someone is saying or believing, you are playing the game without understanding the rules. You might say things that don’t make sense or fit the situation, making your participation irrelevant. You will also miss opportunities to make good points that you could have made if you had paid attention. Everyone wants to be heard, especially in disagreements. Not being heard, or having your words twisted, creates a lot of resentment. So take the time to listen.

And after you’ve listened, THEN do this — literally, and out loud, show the person that you listened by reflecting back what you hear:

  • “So if I understand you correctly…”
  • “It seems like you are saying ______, is that accurate?”
  • “Can I summarize what I think I’m understanding so far?”
  • “I hear you on that, I understand.”

6) Don’t: Use sarcasm (but some humor is okay)

Sarcasm, especially sarcasm in online conversations, can be deadly to a conversation. A lot of people don’t get when someone is being facetious, and it can cause problems. So say exactly what you mean. Do not, under any circumstances, crack a joke at someone’s expense. But using humor or emojis to lighten the mood can be really helpful when things start getting too intense. Remember your long-term relationship with that person is more important than the present conversation. If you want to be influential with them, you will use direct language that does not leave room for misinterpretation. Often, that means taking the time to spell out a longer response or explanation instead of trying to use soundbites that can be taken the wrong way or seen as cocky. If the conversation matters to you, take the time to patiently spell it out.

7) Do: Share your sources

Unless you have won a Nobel prize or published a book for your knowledge on this particular subject, you are not an expert. Share your sources — and be ready for the possibility that people will critique those sources or reject their legitimacy. That’s part of the process of negotiation and healthy debate. If your sources are legit, they will hold up under scrutiny. But you need to have sources to be credible.

8) Don’t: Fire in the hole

“Fire in the hole” is what someone yells when they launch a grenade. This includes:

  • Words like stupid, ignorant, deplorable, disgusting, idiotic, crazy
  • Blanket statements that include the words “always” or “never”
  • “Zingers,” “gotcha” moments, or clapbacks — these are momentarily gratifying but will erode your relationship with the person
  • All namecalling
  • All labels
  • All swear words (I’m not opposed to swearing in general, but in difficult conversations, swearing can be distracting, can heighten emotions and defensiveness, and can be a cop-out for articulating the nuance of our ideas and feelings)

Sure you are free to use these words, it’s a free country. But if you really want to be credible and listened to across disagreement, you will avoid them. All they do is breed hostility, and anyone who would have been sympathetic to your cause now thinks you are a jerk who might not be trustworthy.

9) Do: Teach and be taught

First, it’s vital to remember that there’s a lot of convincing bad information floating around in the world. I want you to take a moment and do this: remember a time when you had bad information and then you changed your mind. Did that experience involve someone screaming at or shaming you? Probably not, because screaming and shaming prevent us from learning (they increase a stress hormone called cortisol which neurologically lowers our ability to engage new ideas). We are all on a journey of discovery. If you are trying to talk to someone with whom you disagree, you are always a teacher first. Not a lecturer or a drill sergeant. Good teachers are patient, gracious, and give people the space to discover things at their own pace. They don’t get mad at someone for not knowing something. Importantly, good teachers don’t mistake “uninformed” for “stupid.” Smart people can believe untrue or misleading ideas, and it doesn’t make them less smart. It means they might have gaps in their understanding or tools. Intelligence and education are different; do not confuse the two. When you patiently explain something to someone in a non-condescending way, you are filling in gaps, not calling them dumb.

Second, when you are speaking to a peer, it goes a long way to allow yourself to be challenged. Saying things like “I never thought about it that way,” or “That’s new to me, I’m going to read up on that” shows that you are a co-learner with your conversation partner. If you want to teach, you need to be open to being taught. A two-way exchange of information equalizes the power dynamic between you and puts you on an equal playing field. People are more likely to open up when they are talking to a peer who is still on a learning journey like themselves.

10) Don’t vent frustration, channel it

I get it, it’s really hard to stay calm especially when people are saying things that you hate. It’s really easy to blow up, so let me offer that blowing up is the lazy option. The real work that needs to be done is seeing that conversation through to its natural end so the relationship can continue to grow and not decay.

That task is very difficult. Much more difficult than exploding.

In those times when you feel like a boiler ready to burst, take a deep breath, and focus all of that building 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.

And if you can’t channel it at that moment, take a break, blow off some steam, and come back to this later. There’s always time for a break if you are in over your head. Because the alternative is putting an entire relationship in jeopardy. Lashing out means people no longer feel safe. Relationships are very hard to mend once trust is broken. The momentary gratification of venting your frustration has a high cost, and you will lose any credibility that you have been working to build. So protect your investment in that person, and do everything you can to stay in community (except in extreme cases when boundaries may be needed).

11) Do: Thank them for disagreeing

This last one is big: Say thank you when someone takes the time to disagree. It might not feel like it, but disagreement is a gift. When someone disagrees with you, they didn’t have to take time out of their precious life to engage you. They don’t owe you their attention or courtesy.

Beyond the gift of time, healthy disagreement is an important part of life. It makes ideas and relationships stronger. We need to disagree well to be strong as a society.

So, recognize the sacredness of that exchange, and pay homage to it.

In Conclusion

Disagreeing is hard work. But if you follow these simple rules, you can have a conversation with almost anyone and not lose your nerve. Remember you can’t control someone else, you can only control the ways you act in the world. Remember also that the goal is not to agree; we can’t control that kind of outcome.

But we can build bridges instead of bonfires.


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