Communicating effectively with someone you disagree with

When watching, reading or listening to the news nowadays, it’s easy to feel that people are more divided than ever, especially down political lines. While it is true in some ways that people do disagree on many issues, it’s also worth remembering that the media (and social media) often highlight extreme conflict, and that we are likely to have more in common with others than we think. For example, we are all currently living through an uncertain time of global crisis, and likely share many similar hopes and fears.

Whether you’re speaking with people in your family, friendship groups, or those from other areas of your life, there is value in understanding others’ views. Hearing new ideas and perspectives is an important way that we all learn. It’s OK to disagree with other ideas, but that does not have to mean that those with opposing views need to be seen as an enemy. Below, we look at some ways to reach across the aisle, and respectfully connect with those you disagree with.

  • Understand your own perspective: Everyone has a unique view on the world that is shaped by many factors, including upbringing, genetics and personal circumstances. We also get our information from different sources – whether it’s our friends, family, media, social media, chosen experts etc. The first step to understanding others is to recognise how your own views are formed and the fact that we all inevitably carry some degree of pre-conceived ideas or bias. Are you genuinely open to considering other points of view, or will you stick to your beliefs regardless of new information or viewpoints?
  • Consider time and place: When talking to someone who disagrees with you, it’s important to talk to them one on one. This is particularly true of social media – where things can easily spiral into a “pile on”. Even if you can’t meet someone in person, a direct message can open up a respectful dialogue. Websites like Mis Match, All Sides Connect and Living Room Conversations provide resources for conversations and can link strangers with opposing views together for a respectful discussion, while the Australian based Remove Hate From the Debate also has some tips on how to communicate with others to counter hateful dialogue.
  • Approach conversations with good intentions: Don’t get involved in a discussion where your only goal is to convince someone that you are right, or to have an argument. Even if you want to help someone understand your views, start with the intention of learning more about the other’s position first, and maintain respect above all else.
  • Listen more than you speak: Don’t jump in too soon to counteract an argument, as it may prevent you from truly understanding things from the other person’s perspective. Ask a lot of questions to try and understand others beliefs.
  • Remember the shades of grey: Not everything is black and white. Find the common ground, and try not to always take an oppositional stand point, as there might be areas where you can come together. For example, you may not support a political party, but there may be some policies that match your own views. Use these as a way to connect. If explaining your own views, select examples that the other person might be able to support.
  • Make the argument: Megan Phelps-Roper (who was raised in the Westboro Baptist Church), in her Ted talk on Talking to People You Disagree With, emphasised the importance of not assuming people know what you think, and clearly articulating what you believe. As Phelps-Roper sates, you might think “we shouldn’t have to defend our positions because they’re so clearly right and good; that if someone doesn’t get it, it’s their problem – that it’s not my job to educate them. But if it were that simple, we would all see things the same way.” Try to re-examine your views as one interpretation of an issue and take the time to explain some of your base assumptions.
  • Focus on the positives: If you already know the person, there is likely a reason why you connected – you may be friends, or share a workplace or school. Focus on the things you’ve experienced together and on your shared values – this will not only help you have a more pleasant discussion, it may give you some insight into how their views (and also their fears) have been shaped.
  • Tell a story: Storytelling is a powerful tool in understanding others, ourselves, and the world around us. Stories can help people articulate their thoughts and feelings – be it through a song, painting, or real world example of how politics shapes our lives. Communicating points of view in a more engaging, relatable format can show your views in a new light that may be better understood.
  • Be empathetic and stay calm: Even if someone else is interrupting you or getting angry, stay calm and try and understand how they feel. If you match their emotions and you both get angry, you won’t come to a mutual understanding. Sometimes when things get too heated, it’s worth taking a time out and coming back to the discussion later. Remember, the goal is to understand someone else’s point of view, not to win a power struggle.
  • Look for non-verbal cues: Not everyone is good at telling you what they are feeling. They may say one thing, but facial expressions and body language can convey a different story. Take the time to actively listen to, and watch, all verbal and nonverbal cues. For example, if someone is fidgeting and no longer taking equal part in the conversation, it may be time to take a break and come back to the chat later on.
  • Aim for compassion and ongoing dialogue: You won’t change someone’s mind immediately and it shouldn’t always be your goal to do so. Encourage critical thinking and expose people to different sources and perspectives in an ongoing way. Open up a dialogue, look for the grey areas, and aim to connect with others long term.
Advice and support

If you would like further advice and support on how best to help someone you care about, contact our Step Together helpline workers.

Last updated:

18 Oct 2023

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