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How to Have a Reasonable Conversation with Someone You Disagree With

Now more than ever before, we are poised to misunderstand each others intent, meaning and perspectives. With the communication of ideas happening with greater frequency in places like twitter and facebook, it is easier now to assume someone is wrong, ill-informed or just a plain a-hole.

If you’ve followed any of the psychology or journalism focused on how we form and keep opinions over the last 50 years then you know how unreasonable reasonable people can be! Even if you haven’t read anything of that nature chances are you have experienced it first hand at a family event, with a co-worker or perhaps like me, on social media.

In 2017 this fantastic article in the New Yorker made the rounds on Facebook and LinkedIn. In it, writer Elizabeth Kolbert shared research and stories highlighting how simply presenting people with facts does not change their minds. Within days I had the oddly surreal experience of witnessing a debate on Facebook in which one person proudly announced “I don’t think it’s true. Facts absolutely do change minds,” and then dug their heels so deeply in to their perspective no matter how many people posted links to studies in psychology journals, articles, and more… that they were as solid and unswayable as a concrete footing.

The consequences for these back-and-forths that go nowhere are clear. Deeper polarization. We breed distrust with each other. We’re appalled that people we love, admire and respect would have the audacity to view the world through a different lens… A WRONG LENS.

And even knowing that this is true is no prevention! Because being right gives us a tiny hit of dopamine, we often put ourselves through hell trying to change someone’s mind even a little because when they say “hmm, that’s a good point” we get a little delicious taste of being right, and it’s the subconscious promise of reward that influences how we show up to disagreements.

Rather than continue to engage in a head banging-against-a-wall competition, I suggest that we may all benefit from striving to have reasonable conversations with each other.

I don’t want to mislead you… these types of conversations take mental and emotional energy until you become well-practiced at these skills, because ultimately to have a reasonable conversation you must first lead by example. This means setting aside your passionately held beliefs temporarily and making room for the possibility that your mind could be changed.

But in the end having patience will be worth it. I am a firm believer that playing the long game of building trust far outweighs building walls when it comes to changing minds.

So it is with the goal of building trust and having reasonable interactions that I present to you:

A not-so-simple and overly-simplified guide to having reasonable conversations with someone you disagree with:

  1. Find something you absolutely agree on and use it as a way to bring you both back to center.
  2. Let go of being right for a bit. In the grand scheme of things, unless you are about to pass a piece of legislation and the two of you are the swing vote, who is ‘right’ and who is ‘wrong’ matters less in this conversation than you might think.
  3. When in doubt be on their side. “I’m on your side, we both want (shared value). Your perspective is different from mine and I want to understand.”
  4. Try to understand their point of view. Not to dismantle it, (and this is an important distinction) but to actually, truly get it. You might learn something new, or you might learn something new about how they make choices. Both are important and helpful down the road.
  5. Imagine you totally agreed with their point of view, what might you add to the conversation with good intent? Check your understanding with them.
  6. Share things that you’ve learned, and ask for their point of view. “I’m still concerned about this piece of information. What are your thoughts about that?”
  7. State their good intent. What do you think they care about?
  8. State your good intent. What is your desired outcome beyond this conversation.
  9. Thank them for their input, and acknowledge how hard it is to have a reasonable conversation. “Talking to you means a lot to me. I appreciate your willingness to walk me through your perspective. It’s different than mine, so this could have easily devolved into an unproductive conversation.”

And of course sometimes you have to know when to call-it and walk away. Sometimes people don’t want to answer questions about their beliefs. Not everyone will greet reasonableness with reasonableness… And occasionally you may learn something that goes against your core values in a way that requires you to walk away as well.

But the more practiced you can become at being reasonable, the more others will reciprocate. And maybe… just maybe we can find our way back to center, community and heart over self-righteousness, selfishness and walls as a whole.

Aden Nepom is president of The Art of Change Skills for Life and host of The Changed Podcast. She’s a pragmatic and playful advisor on communication and change.

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