There’s no getting around it: America is more divided than ever. I don’t have all the answers, but I do know that if we ever have a hope of finding our way back to each other as Americans, we need to start talking – and listening – to one another again. I have made it something of a personal mission to put this to practice.
From long conversations with family, friends, and podcast guests, to short (sometimes, very short) conversations I’ve had with strangers while knocking door-to-door canvassing for a long-shot parliamentary candidate, here are five things I’ve learned about how to have productive conversations with people whose opinions on the Big Things differ from your own.
These guidelines are also for situations that extend beyond political disagreements, be that in the boardroom, when tensions rise at work, or even at home.
1. First Ask, Then Listen – Really Listen
In a conversation, there are no winners and losers. This is not a school debating chamber. Actively listening – and by that I don’t just mean waiting your turn to speak – tells your conversation partner from the outset that you respect them, even if you don’t agree with their opinion.
When you hear something that riles you, and every inner instinct is prompting you to jump in with a counterargument, try asking, “Tell me more,” instead. And then listen to the more they offer.
Time and time again, I’ve found posing, “That’s an interesting way to look at it. Can you tell me more?” has been the gateway to moving beyond initial conflict and finding points of connection.
2. Find Shared Values First
All of that listening you did from the beginning allows you the chance to hear the values that you share. And when you shed light on shared values and agree on things in the world which require change, suddenly you’re both seeing the same side of the coin.
When you start to pull away from each other in the conversation, returning to your shared values provides a natural reset and instantly diffuses conflict, which makes for a far more valuable discussion.
3. Instead of Presenting Your Opinion as Morally Righteous, Try to Understand the Morality in Their Opinion
Most psychologists agree that about 1% of all humans are sociopaths. The rest of us believe we are good people.
So, when you encounter someone with whom you disagree, about 99 times out of a hundred, they will have a moral justification for their views.
Now, you may not agree with that morality, But understanding what underpins their moral compass gives you a productive place upon which to discuss the points that follow.
4. Press Gently and Question Ideas
The first few steps in any contentious conversation should be about establishing trust, decency, and common ground. Your conversation should then flow from the points they have made and not preconceived ideas you want to bring up.
When it gets down to the bones of it, because of the trust and rapport you’ve already established, you can then gently pose challenging questions that present your point of view, not as attacks, but as a way to advance your mutual understanding.
Posing questions, rather than just pushing your version of facts, allows someone to consider your point of view without immediately battening down the hatches and becoming unreachable.
5. If Things Get Heated, Step Back and Analyze Why
There will be times when you and the person you’re speaking with have a fundamental clash of ideas. We all have things about which we feel very strongly, and there’s no doubt things can get tricky here.
Sometimes walking away before things get too heated is really the best and most productive answer. But, if you’ve established enough rapport, you have another option – pivot to the common ground by building on your shared values.
Lead with Respect and Empathy in Difficult Conversations
Having difficult conversations can be…well, difficult. And in these polarized times, it really does feel more difficult than ever to genuinely consider another person’s point of view or get them to consider yours.
But here is one thing I know for sure – you’re never going to convince someone you’re right by telling them over and over how wrong they are.
Leading with respect and empathy for someone who seems to view the world in a fundamentally different way than you do is often a challenge, but I continue to believe that it’s our only hope at healing fraught relations between political tribes.