Five Tips for Talking to Someone Who Disagrees With You
Technical Product Manager
1. REMEMBER WE ARE ALL PROGRAMMED
It is critical to remember that people do not formulate their opinions in a vacuum. Rather, each of us is an amalgamation of hundreds of years of programming and thousands of conditioning factors. People are accountable for their own thoughts and actions, and we are also not usually encouraged by our culture to create thoughts that diverge from the environment where we grew up. People generally act consistent with that conditioning. Having this context in mind from the start sets us up to be more receptive and patient with the dialogue that follows, as opposed to throwing our hands up in frustration and walking away.
2. CURIOSITY IS CONTAGIOUS
Unless you have a very deep, trusting connection with someone—or that person is self-aware in the extreme—you will never change someone’s mind in one conversation. Neither should that be the goal. The purpose of a conversation is an exchange of ideas, and this is not well accomplished with condescension or outrage or a lecture but rather curiosity. It will take something to bring authentic curiosity in the face of a perspective that you vehemently disagree with, or what feels like a personal attack, but doing so creates the possibility of both of you expanding your perspectives and developing greater respect for one another. Put simply, curiosity is contagious.
3. RESPECT YOUR BOUNDARIES
It is not only permissible but incredibly important to know and respect what lines you will not cross. For example, if the other person is personally combative, you may choose to draw a line about what types of conversations you will not have with them. If the purpose of talking with someone who holds a different perspective from yours is for you both to be expressed and heard, it is counterproductive to embark on a conversation when one or both of you are unwilling to engage respectfully. If the conversation must happen, we encourage doing so with a mediator.
4. DO NOT INVALIDATE EMOTIONS
When we engage charged topics (such as race, politics, religion, or class), there are two distinct conversations happening simultaneously. The first is the surface conversation, which includes statistics, anecdotes, ideas, quotes, historical accounts, and points of view. The second is the conversation of emotions–how people feel about the topic. Strong emotions are rooted in identity, how we see and know ourselves in relation to the world. A person’s assessments may seem invalid or their statistics wrong, but their emotions are real and valid. Nothing will devolve the conversation faster than telling someone they shouldn’t feel the way they feel. When you hear or sense someone is ‘afraid,’ ‘worried,’ or ‘angry,’ for example, try responding with curiosity, empathy, listening, or vulnerability. Their fear is real, even if ungrounded.
5. GET TO THE FUNDAMENTAL CARES
In these conversations, it’s critical to get to the fundamental care that animates each perspective. The fundamental care is what’s at the heart of the matter, what’s really at stake, what’s of fundamental importance to each person. It goes deeper than the presenting issue or their position, solution or opinion. The key to transformative conversations is acknowledging those cares and speaking directly to them. What does it look like to put my position on the shelf and try on the lens of the fundamental care that my fellow interlocutor is bringing into the conversation? This is where understanding happens.
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