A Conflict Expert Weighs in on How to Talk to the Other Side of a Debate
It’s been more than a week since America learned that Donald Trump would be our new President-Elect, but for many, the debates are just beginning. For starters, Californians are now calling to secede from the US and join Canada, Twitter is banning alt-right accounts and birth control wars are in full-swing (are you part of the #ThxBirthControl movement?) — yikes!
With a nation split right down the middle (or, at least the half that voted!) with regard to their chosen political champions, we find ourselves in a unique position. How do we talk to one another when our views are so radically different? Is it even worth trying? Can we really come to a consensus with our own friends and family members if they support ideas that violate our beliefs to the very core and/or vice versa?
As a litigator and conflict resolution expert in LA, Larry Slade sees this type of conflict almost every day. He points out that while current political debates may be making us uncomfortable, they’re doing so because, for the most part, we’re not used to this much conflict in our lives, and that’s a good thing: It means we’re largely harmonious.
Larry, on the other hand, is embroiled in lawsuits and arguments between clients on the reg. “We walk that walk every day,” he says. The difference? “We’re trained not to take it personally.”
Here, he offers us tips on how to do the same, with a list of Dos and Don’ts for when it comes to communicating with a member of an opposing party (or simply someone with an opposing viewpoint). Read on for his expert insight below!
Larry says the number one no-no when communicating with someone with a different viewpoint from your own is “contemplating your response to a point while someone else is making it instead of listening. “[We’re] talking at and through and over each other,” he explains. Maybe that’s because, as Larry puts it, instead of treating political debates like a discussion, they’re often seen as a combat; one with a clear winner and a clear loser. But in reality, “That’s not how it is,” he says. “Two people enter, and two people leave angry.”
Instead, Larry says we’d be well-suited to look at our challengers as human beings rather than opponents. “[This] human being arrived at their position through experiences and perceptions that [you] might not understand about them,” he tells us. “Walk a mile in their shoes:” a concept he says is all too often abandoned in today’s society.
DON’T: DELETE YOUR FRIENDS AND FAM FROM SOCIAL MEDIA
We get it: When someone says something that totally irks you, your first instinct might be to just go ahead and click that little “unfriend” button. Without your antagonist there to provoke you, there’s nothing to argue about, and that’s really a positive, right? Wrong, says Larry. While it might feel good in the moment and make you more comfortable in the short run, you’re ultimately not doing yourself any favors. After all, how can we grow and learn from others if we’re only willing to hear our own viewpoints reflected back at us? “It is more emotionally comfortable to have a Facebook feed that has comments and features consistent with [our own] hidden biases,” he says. “It bolsters [people and] further supports their point of view.” The same goes for news articles. “[If] people see an article that confirms their bias, [they] automatically assume it’s true, and vice versa,” he says. “If you see an article that opposes [it, you] automatically think it’s untrue.”
But that doesn’t make it so. Just like stepping outside your own neighborhood to explore a new area can yield the most charming little hidden restaurant or coffee shop, exposing yourself to other viewpoints — even those you don’t agree with — can actually expand your mind, if you’re willing to do the work. “In order to be able to not respond by deleting or shutting people out, you have to be willing to be a little uncomfortable,” Larry says, noting that “It requires you do more homework. [It takes] time and effort and a lot of people don’t want to expend it,” he adds.
While there are always exceptions to the rule, Larry says that even in more extreme cases, when someone’s post or comment goes against your values or offends you on a deep or moral level, there are other ways to keep the peace. “You don’t have to delete them.” Instead, he recommends hiding their posts if you believe their point of view will interfere with your relationship.
DO: RESPECTFULLY SHARE YOUR OPINIONS
While some might be tempted to clam up and say nothing to avoid a conflict, Larry says to put that old adage, which says not to discuss money, politics or religion, to rest and go for it — if you can do so in a respectful manner. “I’m not sure that I’m always right,” Larry says. “I want to hear someone else’s perspective.”
Besides, “If you take those issues off the table, what’s left? Much more mundane subjects,” he says. “It’s not really the food that sustains us.” As a conflict resolution expert, small talk, like the weather and such, is not something Larry particularly recommends or advocates for in general. “It doesn’t further anyone else’s understanding.”
Instead, speak up if you see someone you know saying something offensive. “If you know them, and their comment surprises you, engage [them]. They may know something you don’t know. I think it’s good if it’s done respectfully. If you can agree to disagree, then engage in respectful discussion.”
DON’T: CONTINUE TO ENGAGE IN NON-CONSTRUCTIVE DEBATES
On the other hand, there are some fights that really aren’t worth the battle: particularly those that are becoming personal. “People have a tendency to attack their opponent,” Larry says. If you can’t refrain from make reductive statements about someone’s character (“You’re a jerk, you’re an idiot, you’re a racist/bigot/misogynist”), you’re better off bowing out. “The reality is, a lot of this stuff takes place in gray areas. There’s not an easy answer to it,” he explains. “Trying to reduce the other side to black and white is very destructive and doesn’t help the people engaged. It doesn’t shed any light on the subject.”
It also might be better to let it go when it’s becoming clear that neither party is willing to budge. “[We] all have different realities… they color the lenses through which we see the world,” Larry says. “You can’t wave your hand and change [someone else’s] lenses.” If someone is staying rooted in an opinion you disagree with, “there’s not much you can do [but] continue to be understanding and seek to be understood.” Or, change the subject!
DO: FOCUS ON THE SIMILARITIES INSTEAD OF THE DIFFERENCES
At the end of the day, you’re likely acquainted with the person you’re fighting with for a reason, so it’s helpful to remember what bonded you in the first place. “The reason we’re conversing [is that there is some] pre-existing connection,” Larry points out. “Now there’s something that’s pulling that connection apart.”
Instead of allowing an issue to do just that, he recommends focusing on our shared goals rather than nitty gritty details. “Focus on the outcome of a resolution as opposed to the mechanics of it,” he suggests, giving issues shared as an example. Maybe you dislike Trump while your friend supports him, but you’re both for a reformed healthcare plan. Now you’ve changed “what pulls you apart to what binds you together.”
DON’T: FORGET TO TAKE A BREAK
While it’s great that you’re passionate about your point of view, Larry says there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. “I think that everyone has a different level of stamina when it comes to disagreement,” he shares. “There’s a certain point in time when conflict becomes detrimental to you.” Whether it be mentally, emotionally or even eventually physically, it hits those who aren’t used to conflict particularly hard. “It’s very disquieting,” he says, adding that the extra weight of it all can easily cause you to lose sleep, overeat and stress, all of which could be bad news bears when it comes to your health.
At the end of the day? “Sometimes you need to just put it down,” he says. “Turn off Fox News or MSNBC.”
Amen to that!
What do you think of Larry’s tips? Share with us @BritandCo.
(Photos via Getty)