A guide: Talking with those who disagree

Starting in January 2021, I have been a part of Passionfruit, a multilingual online non-profit publication centered around social justice. I have written a number of different opinion pieces for Passionfruit that I will be reposting. The posts were intended for bite-sized consumption, which challenges me to be as succinct as possible while still conveying important concepts. The original post with full credits can be found here.

May 11, 2021

We’ve all been there – a family member makes a problematic comment, an acquaintance shares a questionable meme, or a colleague spreads misinformation. It can be difficult to know just what to do when friends and family have opposing views on political and social issues. While no one guide could possibly capture all of the nuances and details of all situations, there are some common considerations to think about before speaking up.

Although it can be tempting to immediately respond to something you disagree with, exercising some restraint can go a long way. Is the person with whom you are disagreeing receptive to pushback? Is it likely that a disagreement will be taxing for your mental health? Do a cost-benefit analysis: is it really worth it? Pushing back against problematic claims is laudable, but it’s unfair to pressure yourself to feel that you must take on the world alone.

Ideally, presenting someone with a cohesive argument would lead them to change their mind on the spot; in reality, conversations almost never go that way. Aiming to quickly change someone’s mind is unrealistic. A more manageable goal might be to create doubt in their core assumptions. If they oppose universal healthcare because it’s “too expensive,” sow doubt in that premise. What does “too expensive” mean? Would it be less costly than doing nothing? Who should be paying these costs?‍

Unless you are having a private one-on-one conversation, keep in mind that others around you can also be positively impacted by your advocacy. You might not be able to convince that coworker who shares an offensive meme on social media – but your public comments will be read by all of their followers. Or if a relative is bad-mouthing LGBTQ people at dinner, your protestations may show support to someone at the table who isn’t out of the closet. You never know who might be inspired by your words.

People often use extreme or atypical examples to support their case. An example of this would be supporting the death penalty and citing the Boston bomber as evidence – when the vast majority of people on death row have not committed such heinous crimes. It can often be helpful to cut through these provocative examples to see what they really think. How do they feel outside of the specific case they brought up? If you can, understanding their true feelings will help you craft a better response.

Right-wing personality Ben Shapiro may have popularized the phrase “facts don’t care about your feelings,” but studies have shown humans are more likely to be swayed by arguments with which they emotionally resonate instead of mere facts or logic alone. The best arguments are logically-cohesive, evidence-driven, but crafted to appeal to one’s emotions. For example, instead of talking about universal basic income solely in terms of case studies, talk about how it would have personally helped you.

Sometimes disengaging from a conversation is the best choice. Maybe the person with whom you disagree is becoming belligerent or maybe the topic itself is making you feel deeply uncomfortable. Perhaps the conversation has become unproductive, or you simply do not feel like continuing. How you disengage is entirely up to the circumstances of each discussion, but the important thing is that you are doing what you feel is right. There is no shame in ending a conversation that has passed its prime.

It can be easy to think of the person with whom you disagree as an “opponent,” but in most cases it is more effective to instead consider them a friend. Doing so can allow you to use shared values and experiences to bridge divides. Imagine telling your conservative relative, “We all know how hard dad worked to put himself through college and how much it helped our family. That’s why I support free higher education opportunities.” Change won’t happen overnight, but you can play an important role.


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