How to Talk with people you don’t agree with

I’m going to make this as simple as possible…don’t try to engage with people you disagree with unless you really really have to or really, really want to.

You have other options besides conflict

0. Stay in conflict indefinitely…Not ideal.

  1. Leave. Just walk away, Renee.
  2. Force your way. Make them agree with you. Your Mileage may vary.
  3. Give in. Do whatever the other person wants to do, for the sake of the relationship. (A popular choice)
  4. Engage in real conversation.

If you don’t want to give in, leave or force your side, you’re only left with that last option — engage in real conversation. That’s hard to do, and not for the faint of heart.

When to walk away, when to run

There are two situations in which it’s fruitless to talk to or attempt to engage:

  1. There’s no there, there.
  2. They don’t see you or your side as human or valid.

There are two ways to think about there being no “there, there”.

In Getting to Yes, two amazing and helpful acronyms are discussed. (It’s also great book about negotiations in general).

One is the idea of a BATNA (your best alternative to a negotiated agreement) and another is the ZOPA (zone of possible agreement).

If you want $100 for an item you’re selling, but are hoping for $150 that’s your Settlement range. If someone offers you $1 you are not going to accept that. That offer is waaaay out of your ZOPA.

It’s important to know what your BATNA is. What happens when you walk?

This is why I love this quote from James Baldwin.

Why would a Black Man bother to engage in dialog with a White Supremacist about systemic racism?

James Baldwin’s BATNA is walking away, secure in knowing that he is a man (full stop) with rights and dignity. He doesn’t have to prove that to anyone.

“we can disagree and still love each other unless…”

You have to have a solid reason to want to engage with someone who is denying your humanity.

Walking away is a very good option. So is ignoring your racist uncle at Thanksgiving. Not coming to Thanksgiving is an even better option.

If you really want to engage, you have to be prepared for some hard work. Real conversation doesn’t come for free.

Levers to change the conversation

Engaging in these difficult conversations is hard. They get hot. We forget ourselves.

How can we shift the conversation? There are a few key levers we can shift in a conversation’s operating system. Turn-Taking is one of the most powerful and easiest to see and shift.

This is the primary tool/canvas from my recent book, Good Talk, which is all about how to design conversations that matter. You can get a few free chapters here (or get the whole ebook here.)

What are our turn taking options?

Mostly, we react when we hear an opinion we don’t like.

It’s much, much harder to reflect and actively listen to people who have opinions we know to be wrong.

Reflecting or Holding are two key ways to shift the conversation — to cool it down.

What is their Data?

Often we disagree because we are simply looking at the world differently…very differently. What data is someone paying attention to? What data are they discarding? If you can find out, you might be able to learn more about why they think the way they do.

This is the idea behind the Ladder of Inference — we act and see as we believe. it can be hard to believe that people don’t see what we see. Ask them what they see and believe. It’s more disarming than you can imagine.

Curiosity smells a lot like empathy

Many folks will tell you that empathy is the secret key to transforming conversations. And they are right. But it’s really, really hard to empathize with someone you truly disagree with. And it’s really hard to fake it.

Curiosity is easier to fake and just as effective.

Active listening is the key.

“I’m hearing you say [neutral paraphrase of their hateful and stupid idea]…is that right?”

Then, listen to them clarify. Then, use your “ladder of inference” thinking to climb slowly into their data. What do they know? What do they think they know? What’s their data? In all likelihood they have very little good data.

The Socratic Method Works

Socrates taught me lot of things. One was that the “unexamined life is not worth living”. I believe that. Not everyone does. If the person you’re trying to engage isn’t interested in inquiry, then you should walk.

Socrates also taught me that no one intends evil. They always mean well…it’s just a question of the circle of humanity that they are looking at. What are they loving, protecting or defending in their perspective? Can you find a core, positive value in their bad ideas?

White supremacists have terrible ideas. But they are concerned about their future and the future of their children. That’s a positive human value, right? They just don’t apply that perspective to all children. Why not? It’s worth asking one, if you happen to know any.

Socrates also taught me that at the core of most lives is something that’s UN-examined. A fundamental assumption. If you topple it, the whole shebang topples.

That’s a very valuable thing to know and to find. But also very dangerous. Destroying someone’s world can cause a great deal of backlash, anger and pain.

Using inquiry is more gentle.

circumstantial evidence can be found in this Tik Tok video!

Is this a one-sided conversation?

I’m not suggesting you do all this work and expect nothing in return. You can use active listening to cool down a challenging conversation anytime and reduce conflict.

But if you want the conversation to be a two way street…It’s perfectly acceptable to ask at the outset:

“I’d love to listen and learn as much as I can about your perspective. Would you be open to doing the same with my point of view?”

If they refuse, then see my first point: Leave.

How to practice active listening

I ran a workshop recently on these idea and this core skill — learning to listen deeply and with curiosity…even when we’re listening to ideas we deeply dislike. Download the “hot topic” exercise worksheet here and give it a try with a group of safe, thoughtful people. Remember to bring a safe word!

get a copy of the exercise here

Host of and @gothamsmith co-founder. Often riding bikes to the ocean.