Just because you disagree (as you likely will with many people you meet over your lifetime) doesn’t mean the conversation has to devolve into an argument. Learning how to talk to people with differing opinions, beliefs, and perspectives respectfully is key … unless, of course, they place their toilet paper rolls with the end hanging under instead of over, because that we simply cannot abide by.
First let’s dive into why we tend to get prickly when we disagree with someone:
At its core, confirmation bias is when we take in new information but use it to prove our existing beliefs. There are a lot of varieties of it, but we all do it in one form or another.
For example: Imagine that two people witness a dog and a child in an altercation. One person thinks this particular breed of dog is dangerous, so they see a vicious dog attacking an innocent child. The other person is an animal lover, so they see a dog defending itself against an antagonistic child. Each uses the scenario they are witnessing to confirm their existing beliefs, and in turn, neither account is completely accurate.
Another example: People of faith often see everyday events as signs that reinforce their beliefs. Unexpected positive events are seen as miracles, while adverse events are seen as tests of their faith to prove their devotion. On the opposite end of things, agnostic or atheist people might see these same occurrences as indicators of the fickleness of fate or the universe, reinforcing their beliefs.
Add to this underlying tendency social media companies like Facebook and Twitter, where users encourage each other to double down on their preexisting beliefs and isolate themselves into their own communities, rather than embracing open-mindedness and critical thinking.
But social media doesn’t just help like-minded people gravitate toward each other and “team up;" the very algorithms that power social media (and media in general) actually accelerate confirmation bias. That’s because these algorithms are literally designed to feed us more of what we like and less of what we don’t like. Want a particular user to engage with a piece of content? Don’t position it in a neutral manner – frame it in a way that confirms their underlying bias, and they’ll be more likely to like and share it. (Head to Ground News to see how this bias plays out in media outlets on both the right and left).
We Turn Off Our Ears
In conversations, we often find ourselves listening for the express purpose of replying or rebutting. Instead, we should be listening with the intent to understand what the other person is saying.
We Hide In Our Bubbles
It's easy to consistently feel you're right when you stay in the tiniest intellectual bubble possible. But when you venture outside your comfort zone, you'll quickly find things you don't know and discover things you're flat-out wrong about. That's why people who think they're always right are often afraid to expose themselves to information/people/scenarios that might contradict them (and act defensive when they do encounter them).
According to Forbes Magazine, “Thinking you’re always right probably means you’re going through repetitive motions, checking off the boxes just like you did last month—or even last year.”
How To Stop Yourself
Now, you’re probably saying to yourself, “Okay, that’s all well and good, but how do I make sure I’m not one of these people?” (Either that or you’re thinking, “Did I remember to record Real Housewives?” We can’t help with the latter.) But for the former, we've got some advice:
Change The Goal From Winning to Understanding
Most of us want to be right. But as Dr. Roger Landry points out, “acknowledgment and acceptance of a differing worldview is a powerful act of understanding, self-confidence, and compassion.” (A.k.a., acknowledging another person's POV – and the fact that you might be wrong – doesn’t make you weak. It makes you strong.)
Dylan Marron, host of the podcast “Conversations With People Who Hate Me”, puts this idea beautifully in his TED talk. After literally calling up his trolls and talking to them, he argues that you can empathize with another person's point of view without having to endorse it.
Use Clarifying Questions
Instead of arguing, ask clarifying questions that show you're listening and reframe what the other person said. (We know, we know: it seems simple, but trust us: it can make or break an interaction!)
One of our favorite ways to do this is this: "So what I hear you saying is X ... did I get that right?" What we love about clarifying questions is that when you show the other person you're listening and trying to understand their perspective, they become more likely to do the same.
Turn Defensiveness Into Intrigue
What if, when presented with info that goes against your beliefs, you found it INTENSELY interesting instead of getting annoyed or defensive? You’d probably be a lot less likely to insist you were right. Right?
Obviously, your mind will not get blown by every piece of contradictory information thrown at you. But, according to the doctors at Crownview Medical Group, the more we can “feel intrigued instead of defensive,” the less likely we are to snap back or double down on our own beliefs.
So let your inner child out a bit, and allow yourself to be fascinated by things instead of assuming they're wrong.
Acknowledge you might be wrong
It's the Golden Rule of conversation: treat the other person the way you'd like to be treated. So if you want them to be open to changing their mind, you need to be open to changing yours.
OK, but what if they are wrong?
The above is all well and good, but you might be wondering what you should do when someone says something you know for a fact is wrong (or that you emphatically disagree with):
Remember: you can't change their mind for them. Even if the facts are on your side, you simply won't be able to change everyone’s mind. And that's OK. Don't approach the conversation like a debate you need to win; instead view it as a conversation where you present your perspective and they present theirs.
Understand their side: You know you're right. They know they're right. But you can't get someone to respect your point of view if you don't respect theirs. This doesn't mean agreeing with them. It simply means acknowledging that their opinions and feelings come from somewhere, and you can't change their mind without first understanding what’s shaped their views. Try asking, "Why?" or saying, “That’s interesting. Tell me more.” If you listen, and try to understand the strengths and weaknesses of both your perspectives, this not only informs your own thinking; it’s the best way to make an effective counterpoint.
- Keep a cool head: It’s natural to get emotional when someone says something you strongly disagree with – but it's a more productive conversation if you can stay calm. Having trouble controlling your emotions? It’s ok to say, “You know what? I don’t know if this is the best time for me to talk about this right now. I’d love to take a break and revisit later.”
Btw, none of the above is easy. But with a little intention and some practice, it becomes less difficult. And then you’ll be wrong all over town! (jk, jk, you’re the best.)