How to Have Better Conversations—Even When You Disagree

The importance of human connection (and lack thereof) has been brought into stark relief by the pandemic. Because so many other things have been stripped away, those who we connect with, who we miss, and who we can’t see eye to eye with have all been at the forefront.

We’re closer than ever with people who share our views, and farther apart from those who don’t. Our need to convince each other that we’re right is powerful, but the harder we try, the more we find ourselves wondering why it’s so hard to change someone else’s mind.

At Firewood, we believe that good people are good business—both when it comes to those who work here and those who we work with. We care about growing as individuals and treating people with the dignity and respect they deserve. We work with our clients to uplevel their diversity, inclusiveness, and accessibility standards, and want to ensure everyone feels like they’re being seen and represented in the work we put forth. In keeping with an inclusive and authentic culture, we want to be respectful of each other as people—even when we disagree. So we dug deep and have come up with a few techniques to help you have more productive conversations.

The human dilemma

Countless studies have shown that humans are not rational when it comes to forming beliefs. Once we form an opinion, we hold onto it—and no amount of hard facts can change our minds. In their book, “The Enigma of Reason,” cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber conclude that this is because humans developed reason to be able to figure out how to best collaborate with people in their circle, not to wrestle with philosophical dilemmas. So if being social is more important to our survival than being intellectual, it makes sense that changing someone’s mind is no easy task (and that simply stating facts doesn’t really work). So then what does?

How to have conversations that don’t end in shouting

In order to have a real conversation and maybe even change a deeply held belief, you have to make a human connection first. The person you’re talking with has to feel safe, respected, and heard before they can hear you. This may require a lot of self-control and patience, but no matter how much you may disagree with them, the first thing you have to do is see the person behind the belief.

Technique 1: Make them feel heard

Truly hearing someone and making them feel heard are the keys to having a productive conversation. This can be very difficult if you strongly disagree, but take a deep breath and let the person you’re talking with express their opinion fully. Then, before countering, restate what you heard in your own words. Mention anything you agreed with and talk about what you’ve learned from what they said. This technique makes people feel heard and respected enough to lower their guard and possibly hear your counter argument without being defensive. Do this at every step of the conversation, not just the beginning.

Technique 2: Ask questions

If you find yourself strongly disagreeing with someone’s beliefs, fight the temptation to poke holes. Instead, ask a lot of detailed questions—as politely as you can. Not only will they be less defensive in response to your curiosity, they may also discover that they didn’t know or understand as much as they thought they did and re-evaluate their own conviction.

Technique 3: Put things into perspective

When someone makes a strong statement that doesn’t sit well with you, instead of immediately disagreeing ask them to put it into perspective. For example, if someone says “What was said in our meeting earlier really irritated me,” ask them to quantify their irritation on a scale from 1 to 10. If they say anything other than 10, ask them to explain why it was less. This will force them to give you a counterargument against their strong statement, weakening it and giving you a chance to question it further.

Lead with kindness

We’re biologically programmed to feel uncomfortable—even unsafe—talking to people who don’t think like our social group. The key to all three of the above techniques is to be genuine and kind, reminding “opponents” that even if we don’t share beliefs, we have something larger in common: our humanity. And while there are a lot of truly harmful beliefs in the world today that will take more than kindness to dissolve, getting to a point where we can talk to people we disagree with without shouting gets us one step closer to a world where we can be defined by something greater than the social circle we’re comfortable in.


About Liza Mock

Liza Mock is an associate creative director at Firewood, part of the S4 Capital (SFOR.L) group of companies.