Relearning to Discuss, Disagree and Digest

In today's ever-growing polarized society, we no longer desire to discuss differences of opinion and deeply understand those who might think differently than us.

In today’s hyper-polarized society, we’ve forgotten how to disagree with one another without taking personal offense. Somewhere along the way, as a culture, we’ve decided it’s either our way or the highway.

In my view, part of this can be blamed on many's plummeting ability to think critically. Whether it’s politics, sports, or culture at large, it seems as though the main idea is those we disagree with must bend to our will, or they’re a lost cause.

I am not asserting you shouldn’t passionately advocate for important issues or causes you believe in. Whether it’s a political view, a business philosophy, or other key tenets of your core beliefs, advocating them in discussion with “the other side” is a worthwhile and necessary practice. That does not mean your goal should be to invalidate their opposing views or assert they’re not worthy of discussion.

Yet, how often do you talk with someone who might believe the opposite and not get frustrated, or worse, angry? The ability to validate and empathize with those with opposing views seems almost impossible for some in the current climate.

But why?

When engaging in discussions with those we disagree with, we should put into practice a few skills and strategies that will result in a much better outcome. Those include reasserting the value they’re bringing to the discussion without dismissing their point of view or ideas - no matter how wrong you may personally believe they are.

Here are a few tips on having a civil dialogue with those with whom you disagree with even if their views run counter to your own.

  1. Reinforce the Idea The Person and Their Ideas Matter. By starting a discussion with statements and declarations that reinforce the idea, your discussion doesn’t dilute the value of the individual you disagree with, or their opinions set a precedent and equal footing for the discussion. Just because you vehemently disagree with their political assertion doesn’t mean they’re stupid, uninformed, etc. Avoid the “but” when you state you appreciate them and their views even if they’re opposite your own.

  2. Don’t Let Frustration Overcome You. As Psychology Today’s Melody Stanford Martin states: “Take a moment and remember a time when you changed your mind about something. Did that experience involve someone screaming at you or shaming you? Probably not.” When you get frustrated, Stanford Martin reminds us to channel our frustration to better understanding where these views are coming from and the best way to discuss them from our point of view. Do your best to explain your point of view better to explain better why your views differ. One of our goals should be to strengthen your relationship with the other person, not torpedo it.

  3. Recognize Humans Fears Under the Surface. Stanford Martin asserts the root of many conflicts stems from our innate fear as a species. The “fight or flight” mechanism in the lizard portion of our brain is strong. Acknowledge your fear, and inquire about theirs, as it shows empathy and is a shared emotion that connects us.

  4. Express Understanding Even When You Disagree. In addition to our desire to be liked and loved as people, we also desire our fellow humans to acknowledge our points of view. People want to be heard, and active listening when engaging in discourse is vital. By acknowledging the other person’s views and listening enough to understand where it’s coming from, deep and meaningful conversations are key.

  5. Don’t Belittle or Demean With Verbal Assaults. One-liners and zingers over a point you differ on will not earn you a more fruitful dialogue. The idea isn’t to assert your intellectual control of the conversation. The idea is to exchange ideas and teach one another for better understanding. You have to be willing to teach the other person something they don’t know, or they haven’t thought about, and be willing to be taught something you don’t know or didn’t think about before. It’s this exchange that matters. It can’t be a one-way street.

It’s useful to remember these tips and put them into practice whenever you’re involved in a discussion that includes disagreement. It takes practice, and it takes a new level of self-control and channel frustrations into something productive. No one sits down to get frustrated or angry during an exchange of ideas. Instead, at the end of the conversation, both parties should be thankful for the full exchange. Thank you for sharing these points of view should be a goal and the fitting ending to a healthy dialogue.

My experience with discussions like this has yielded great results when I’ve had them with people who understand the concepts outlined above. My goal is never to change anyone’s mind. My goal is to understand better why they think as they do and better understand why I think. Many a discussion has been led me to further research something I already found important and to 1.) reassert my already strong belief in it, or 2.) to rethink my position and adapt it based on my learning. Is that a bad thing? I think not.

Basing discussions with those we disagree with on facts and an exchange of ideas is far more constructive than emotional exchanges, which only set out to prove people “wrong.” These discussions are not about right and wrong - they should be about teaching and learning.

That’s something I believe we all need more of in today’s public discourse.