Over the last couple of years, you have most likely had a heated argument with a friend, family member, roommate, or co-worker. You may have even unfriended or unfollowed them on social media. And, considering the social and political climate, that’s understandable.
But, no matter what happens in the future, disagreeing with others is a part of life since we all have opposing views on politics, religion, sports, movies, or how to be a better parent. Instead of avoiding these difficult conversations or engaging in a yelling match, you can have healthy and productive disagreements by keeping the following seven tips in mind.
chances are you’ll find yourself caught in a disagreement with someone at some point. While we may not always share the same views as those around us, it can be helpful to have tools to work through disagreements in a productive way.
1. Decide if you want to go there.
Before engaging in a heated or uncomfortable conversation, first, decide if it’s worth having. For example, let’s say that your spouse just received a promotion. If they accept, however, your family will have to relocate. This is a conversation that your family must-have.
But, is it worth having a political discourse with an acquaintance who has completely different views than you do? In most cases, probably not since you know that neither one of you will be able to change each other’s minds.
“I don’t have to have a conversation with someone I disagree with to know something about their perspective,” says Holly Weeks, an adjunct lecturer in public policy at Harvard Kennedy School of Government and author of Failure to Communicate: How Conversations Go Wrong and What You Can Do to Right Them.
If you’re really curious, you could also learn more about the topic yourself or speak to someone else who isn’t at opinionated. But, what if you really want to change someone else's mind? That shouldn’t be your goal. “That’s not really a conversation; that’s a lecture,” says Weeks.
Additionally, you should also consider the reception of the conversation. If you, and the other party, enjoy complex conversations, then it may be worth pursuing. For others though, they may perceive this as “pushing their buttons.” If so, don’t bring up the topic or steer it in a different direction.
2. Have a good frame of mind.
“In order to have a good frame of mind and control your tone of voice, foster a sense of sincere curiosity, trying to see things from the perspective of the other person,” notes Lisa B. Marshall, aka The Public Speaker, and author of How to Have a Difficult Conversation.
“Think positive thoughts about your conversation partner, assuming they have the best intentions,” adds Marshall. “Or sometimes if a person uses a rude tone, I try to think, ‘Maybe she has a headache,’ or ‘Perhaps he’s having a bad day.’” Doing so can help you “quickly cool down.”
“With these sincere and positive thoughts, you can now disagree with a respectful and sincere tone of voice,” says Marshall. “But you still have to be very careful with your word choice.”
3. Maintain your composure.
Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is to remain as calm as possible. While certainly not an easy task, it’s important if you want to keep the discussion civil and productive.
However, this will take patience and practice. But, here are some pointers to get started:
Don’t launch verbal grenades. Avoid name-calling, personal attacks, labels, zingers, or blanket statements like “always” or “never.”
Don’t use sarcasm or “sound bites.” While humor can lighten the mood, sarcasm can cause misinterpretation. The same is true of short and brief statements that do not clearly spell out how you feel.
Don’t be condescending. It’s okay to be confident. But, do not talk down to others in order to make yourself feel superior.
Use softer words. “Choose words that soften the blow. Instead of ‘I don’t get what you’re saying,’ try ‘I don’t quite get what you mean.’” suggests Marshall. And don’t say, ‘You don’t understand.’ Try instead, ‘Perhaps I’m not explaining myself well enough’ or ‘Can you tell me why you think that way?’”
Do not drag others into the debate. When not thinking rationally, or feeling backed in a corner, you may be tempted to bring in others to back you up. That may make you feel better. But, the other party may feel like they’re being attacked, which will only escalate matters.
4. Be prepared to listen and ask questions.
Elicit clarification is a strategy practiced in marriage counseling. And, it can also be useful when you aren’t seeing eye-to-eye with someone.
It works like this, repeat back in your own words what you think you heard. You should also ask questions to clarify and actively listen to their answers.
This technique can get everyone on the same page by preventing assumptions and misunderstandings. It can also encourage both parties to put themselves in each other’s shoes. And, it makes everyone feel like they’re being head, which in turn can keep the conversation calm.
One final tip, use “I” statements as opposed to “you” statements. This will let others know exactly how you’re feeling. More importantly, this forces you to take responsibility without pointing fingers at anyone else.
5. Keep your ego in check.
We all hate to “lose.” And, we can thank the prospect theory for this since we usually evaluate things in terms of gains and losses.
When it comes to arguments, there is no “winner” if both sides believe that they’re right -- even when you’re both incorrect. Have some humility and admit when you don’t know an answer or have data to back-up your claims. Despite what your ego is screaming, it’s acceptable to sometimes say, “I don’t know.”
If you do have evidence though, share your sources. Make sure that they’re legitimate. And, don’t hesitate in asking others to provide their sources as well.
6. Find common ground.
There will be times when you and someone else will not agree on something. And, that’s alright. After all, we all have our own beliefs, values, opinions, and experiences that will differ from others.
As long as you listen and keep an open mind, you can keep the conversation from escalating. But, you can also find common ground instead of being “right.”
“In most disagreements, there is generally common ground where you can start,” says Marshall. “So begin by highlighting what you share, then build up from there.”
“While I agree with you on <common ground>, have you considered <new point of view>?” she advises. “Notice this also includes choosing softer words.”
“I understand saying <summarize agreed-upon point of view/common ground> about X. On this other point about X, I think...”
And, if all else fails, find anything that you agree on. For example, if you live in Philadelphia and are polar opposites politically, you will probably always agree on your dislike of the Cowboys, Penguins, or any sports team in New York City.
7. It’s OK to take a step back.
Finally, if you feel that the conversation isn’t going anywhere after you’ve listened and said your peace, you can always disengage and walk away. It’s a better option than talking in circles or having tempers flare. And, as mentioned above, you can always continue this discussion at another time when everyone is more calm and collected.