A Practical Guide for Talking to People You Disagree With

Particularly since the election, there have been increasing calls for people to spend more time talking to those they disagree with politically. Some of these demands have been pretty generalized (e.g. Everyone should get out of their echo chambers and reach across the aisle), and others directed at more specific groups (e.g. White liberal allies have the most responsibility to talk to Trump supporters about racial issues).

But there is less talk about how to actually go about conducting such discussions in a way that results in something more than extreme frustration.

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This particular post isn’t a statement about whether you should engage in these types of conversations or the relative effectiveness of conversation as a tool for change (Given that the word “disagree” can refer to everything from liking different TV shows to denying someone’s value as a person, that wormhole deserves it’s own post.)

But given that you have chosen to have a substantive conversation with someone who has different beliefs about a meaningful issue (pollitical or otherwise), here are some practical suggestions for making it as productive as possible:

1. Listen to understand.

People often respond to ideas that they don’t accept with the statement “I can’t understand why someone would think that.” But given that someone does think that, it’s important to understand why and how they do.

Why does this person think what they think? What logical premises would you have to accept to agree with what they think? Why might this person’s experiences have lead them to have a different set of beliefs than you do?

Understanding a belief system doesn’t necessarily mean accepting it as true or valid. In fact, especially when it comes to hateful or damaging belief systems, understanding precisely how they operate is crucial in determining how to break them down.

2. Find some common ground of agreement.

As you listen, see if you can identify any premises, values, or goals–however small or basic–that you can use as a point of departure. For instance, “I agree that X is a problem, but I don’t think that Y will solve it.” This shows the other person that you are listening to their ideas fairly and thoughtfully, if also critically. It also helps to focus the discussion by specifying what the fundamental points of disagreement really are.

3. Speak a common language.

It’s hard to get on the same page when you are using completely different sets of terminology. Try to avoid using language that is highly specific to particular academic field, pollitical movement, or other community that the other person is not a part of. If you really think a specialized term would be useful, explain what you mean by it first.

Jargon and canned phrases can be useful shortcuts when talking to people with a similar background and understanding of the issue. But outside of that sphere, restricting yourself to the plainest language possible is also useful in forcing you to explain your logic from scratch, with fewer unspoken assumptions.

4. Argue about opinions, judgements, interpretations, and values, but just look up the facts.

If you have internet access, there’s no reason to let an opinionated discussion turn into a heated competition of egos over who’s better at remembering easily verifiable historical events or statistics. Save the heat for stuff that matters.

5. Pick your battles. 

You have limited time and limited emotional energy, and these types of conversations often demand a lot of both. You simply can’t, won’t, and don’t have to talk to all the people about all of the things.

To get the most effect out of your personal resources,  consider talking to people who are reasonably likely to change their opinions, and starting by presenting the aspects of your beliefs that they are relatively more likely to accept.

6. But also plant seeds.

On the other hand, there can also be value in exposing people to ideas that they are unlikely to accept right now–but just might resonate later on or leave them with some questions that take root over time.

You won’t walk away from seed-planting conversations feeling great–like you “won” or even came to a mutual understanding–but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you had no impact.

This is obviously non-comprehensive list, so please feel free to comment with your own suggestions!

 

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