Have you noticed that it’s getting harder to have good conversations with people we disagree with these days?
In college, I remember many times I had interesting and friendly conversations with people who had radically different viewpoints from mine — conversations I know for a fact I’d be far more afraid to have now. What felt like a laidback “agree to disagree” kind of debate back then now feels like unsafe territory.
Why does this shift matter? Why should we still try to venture outside of our bubbles and talk to people we disagree with in this highly polarized climate?
When we can’t engage with people from different faith backgrounds, ideological leanings, or political beliefs, we lose our ability to think of people who are different from us as fully-rounded human beings deserving of our empathy. We start to develop an “us vs. them” mentality that threatens our relationships with our families and communities, dehumanizes our opponents. This polarization also makes us intellectually lazy as we accept shaky evidence from sources that back up what we already believe.
On a culture-wide level, we are facing problems that require global cooperation to solve. We won’t make progress on climate change, poverty, addiction, and public health when we can’t personally engage with someone we disagree with.
Here are four principles that can help us step outside our ideological bubbles and develop resilience for difficult conversations.
Build and nurture your relationship before (and after) you talk about your differences.
Some of my closest friends and I have very different views about everything from faith and spirituality to abortion. We formed those relationships by connecting on a human level first, though — we built a solid foundation of trust and mutual respect before we were aware of each other’s beliefs. This helps us approach conversations from an awareness that we have more in common than otherwise.
In his book, Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, Dr. Vivek Murthy points to the importance of establishing layers of “trust, acceptance, and common ground” before you delve too far into political opinions and differences.
The rise of social media has encouraged us to reduce people down to a bio with a 150-character limit; religious and political views are distilled into snappy one-liners that identify us as belonging to one side or another. In this climate, it’s more important than ever to resist the temptation to reduce someone (or ourselves) down to only political beliefs.
Keep your common ground and the positive things about your relationship in mind.
A big part of establishing trust in a relationship is to show that you’re listening and engaging on more than just a superficial level. Relationship experts at the Gottman Institute recommend “warming up” for a hard conversation with your partner by listing five things they’ve done for you recently that you appreciate before you discuss your area of conflict.
The same principle applies in all kinds of different interactions and relationships: if you’re going to discuss something potentially difficult, it helps for your relationship to be made up of more positive interactions than negative ones. This doesn’t have to involve compromising your position, or watering down your beliefs to make them more palatable to the other person. But when you express an opinion you know they won’t like, remember to try to balance it out with references to the values that you do share in common. Invest time and energy into showing them how much you appreciate their friendship, love, and support.
For example, I have a friend whose beliefs differ from mine on the issue of abortion. One of the core values that we share in common is compassion. Remembering that this is a shared starting point helps keep our conversations around this difficult topic respectful and kind. It’s also important for us to follow up any difficult conversations with more words of affirmation, quality time, and other positive relationship-building efforts. Those actions help us to show we’re still here for each other and value the friendship, despite points of difference and disagreement.
Remember, you don’t know all of the reasons behind someone’s position.
Most of us arrived at our beliefs through a unique set of experiences — sometimes very difficult ones — and so it’s important to remember that some topics of conversation can be very triggering for people. Talking about rape or sexual assault? Pregnancy, or loss, or parental relationships? Remember the old adage: “Everyone is fighting a hard battle you can’t always see.”
Behind many of our most passionately held beliefs are complex networks of associations and experiences that most of us aren’t even aware of ourselves. Try to be honest about the things that have shaped your own beliefs, and invite the person you’re in dialogue with to do the same. Even if you don’t agree with the conclusion someone has come to, you can still express genuine empathy for the experiences that inform their position.
As researcher Dr. Brené Brown points out, there’s room for calling someone out for behavior that you believe to be wrong or harmful without weaponizing shame or using language and arguments that belittle the person you’re talking to. “Don’t assume that people know better and they’re just being malicious or mean-spirited,” she writes in Braving the Wilderness. Far better to assume that they are a fundamentally good person who has their reasons — no matter how erroneous — for their convictions.
Acknowledge the gaps in your knowledge, and suggest ways to fact-check together.
In his book, Hate Inc: Why Today’s Media Makes Us Despise One Another, journalist Matt Taibbi says that modern media is “training audiences to fear being caught not knowing, and to believe it’s shameful to be ignorant of news.”
Imagine if we turned this trend on its head and started admitting when we actually don’t know the answer to some questions, or perhaps hadn’t even thought about something from a particular angle. There’s no way we can all be experts on everything — but armed with smart phones and internet access, it can feel like we’re supposed to be.
“In highly charged discussions, we can feel shame about not having an informed opinion and these feelings of ‘not enough’ can lead us to bullshitting our way through a conversation,” Brené Brown writes. “Generosity, empathy, and curiosity (e.g. Where did you read this or hear this?) can go a long way in our efforts to question what we’re hearing and introduce fact.”
I’ve found that a simple statement of curiosity can put you on the same page as open-minded truth-seekers: “That’s interesting — that doesn’t match up with what I read. I’d love to hear more.” Rather than leading with fear, defensiveness, or an unwillingness to engage with any information that might complicate your position, expressing respect for the truth will help the person you’re talking to relax and take a similar attitude. Show them that this conversation and their perspective is important to you, and that you’d like to keep the door to dialogue open: “If you’re able to track down the article where you read those stats, I’d love to read it, and I’ll try and find the source I’m thinking of.”
It may feel harder than ever to have difficult conversations, and to stay in relationship with people we disagree with, but it’s possible — in fact, it’s urgent and necessary.