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Disagree? Ways to Keep Talking Instead of Arguing

He takes a stupid stand. (Translation: he hit my hot button.) My first response is to dislike him. (Apparently that’s a universal reaction.) My distaste shows on my face and in my tone, despite my attempt to cover my feelings in a cloak of civility. Even friends or sympathetic bystanders take a psychic step back.

Naturally he reacts in one of two ways:
Stepping Back (saying little, going blank-faced, silent or even walking away) or Escalating Up (counter-attacking, speaking louder, standing closer). It’s instinctual – beyond our conscious choice. These are rapid, thin slices of gut reactions and responses. The charged air change happens in milliseconds. We’ve already made each other wrong in our minds.

Worse yet, we escalate up into conflict quicker than over into connection. That’s because our primitive brain is wired for survival. Put more bluntly, self-protection trumps happiness or helpfulness in the sequence of gut instinctual reactions. Yet we can reduce the fear response and increase our ability to make connection, even in times of potential conflict.

With practice, these steps have helped me, with these twin caveats:
• One can be convincing without being right.
“There is no greater mistake than the hasty conclusion that opinions are worthless because they are badly argued.” – Thomas Huxley.
• Unless I fairly state his position first, he and bystanders will instinctively doubt mine.

The most likely ways to change someone’s mind and sway others in the situation are to:
1. Slow down your responses, especially when you feel like acting more rapidly.
2. Speak to the other person’s positive intent, especially when you feel like maligning their motives.
3. Re-state their view fairly, completely, without negative emotion-laden descriptors. As Nick Morgan advises, “You have to argue the other side’s case on its own merits. To forestall criticism and avoid inflaming a debate further, understand and be ready to give the other side’s position. Fairly. First. And forthrightly.”
4. Ask for confirmation that you got it right, listen fully to her response and then confirm you hear any modifications she suggested.
5. Then and only then can you state your position and expect to be heard.
Brevity is better. It is less likely you’ll be interrupted.
6. Ask others to comment. That’s when you see your stand through their eyes. In so doing you will know how to fairly and clearly address the points that most matter to them. In so doing, you may change how you feel about the issue.

“Honest disagreement is often a good sign of progress.” – Mahatma Gandhi
There’s an added benefit. In this approach you are supporting a thread to the conversation – so people are more inclined to keep talking, civilly, about their differences. I suggested taking this sequence in commenting to spur civil conversation, “triangle talking” (1. You 2. Me 3. Us) in a book I wrote long ago. When two people can focus on the common issue in front of them, rather than just on each other’s reactions, then it becomes safer to continue talking about the issue. You may feel less instinctual need to attack the other person or defend yourself.

Bottom line benefits: Afterwards, you may like yourself and the other person better.
Plus with this approach:
1. It is easier to stay calm and in the conversation.
2. Everyone has a greater chance of being heard rather than feeling attacked.
3. You are more likely to sway others and to be open to change.
4. Rather than being destroyed, relationships may even be strengthened.

For more ideas on how to speak authentically, even while disagreeing, consider reading the timeless classic, Crucial Conversations, reading the tips at the Civil Conversations Project and perusing Don Lindsay’s fascinating list of fallacious arguments.

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