How to talk to people you disagree with
What science outreach taught me about discussing politics
Two years ago, I wrote a list of lessons I had learned from my involvement in science outreach. I never published it, however, since it was only relevant to a narrow audience. Lately, I’ve come to realize these lessons are much more broadly applicable, and especially in terms of addressing disagreements in politics (e.g., with friends and family).
Specifically, I’ve increasingly met people who no longer see the benefit in engaging with “the other side”, since the gulf in our policies and values have grown so wide. I can certainly understand that frustration. But I also believe that if people are able to change their minds regarding vaccines, GMOs, evolution, and climate change—all of which are quite emotionally charged—then there’s also room for movement in politics.
Lesson #1: Leave the insults at the door
I know you think they’re “stupid”, “crazy”, or even “evil”. It doesn’t matter how correct (you think) you are, insulting someone’s intelligence, sanity, and morals is just going to put them on the defensive—and, more often than not, galvanize their position. (Indeed, you’ve almost certainly been on the receiving end of this before, and done precisely that.) It may feel good to get it off your chest, and it will rally the support of people who already agree with you, but it’s counterproductive if your objective is to actually change people’s minds.
Learn More: “Research says there are ways to reduce racial bias. Calling people racist isn’t one of them”, Vox (August, 2017)
Lesson #2: Understand what’s driving their views
Many of us maintain explanations for why people believe the things they do. And when they espouse those views, we start firing away with all of the reasons why they’re wrong. Often, however, our understanding is simplistic, and may not apply to individuals. Take a moment to put aside your assumptions and your stereotypes, and try to get into to what’s really informing someone’s views. Ask questions to assess what they do and do not know, and what values and assumptions (and, often, fears) are behind their beliefs. In my experience, many of the views people hold are surprisingly casual, based on incomplete information, and aren’t actually based in the dogma we associate with those arguments (even though they might cite them as a superficial explanation).
Tip: Understanding—and even sympathizing with—someone’s argument doesn’t necessitate agreeing with or condoning it. Strive to understand so you can talk to the most relevant concerns that person has.
Lesson #3: Speak to their values
We often try to convince people using the same arguments that convinced us. And there’s certainly a logic to that. The problem is that we’re frequently convinced by arguments that speak to our values. And while our values may seem “self-evident” to us, they’re not necessarily universal. Try to understand what people’s values are, and then reframe your arguments based on them. To the previous point, however, this is difficult to do if you don’t first take the time to understand their reasoning.
Learn More: “Moral Arguments”, You Are Not So Smart podcast, episode 088
Lesson #4: Know what you’re talking about
This may seem a bit obvious, but if you’re going to persuade someone, you need to ensure you actually know what you believe, and that the evidence is truly on your side. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve held any number of beliefs that, while perhaps correct, were based on largely fallacious arguments. Sometimes this is because I misunderstood the evidence. Other times it’s because an advocate exaggerated their case and I fell for it. Regardless, bringing bogus arguments to a discussion is a good way to lose the respect needed to convince someone to take you — and your beliefs — seriously.
Lesson #5: Acknowledge when you’re wrong
Even if your side is factually correct, it’s almost certain that people on your side, potentially including yourself, have made bogus claims. Maybe you overstated your evidence, or painted with a broad stroke. Or, perhaps, you were just an ass about it. Here’s the thing, though: people get really caught up on these issues, and they become roadblocks to further discussion. Simultaneously, you may feel that acknowledging any mistakes on your side is admitting defeat, or weakening your position. It’s not. And your insistence on defending an incorrect argument just makes you look intellectually dishonest. Even if everything else you say is correct, you’re actually getting in the way of your own persuasiveness.
Tip: There are a lot of painless ways to acknowledge fault without conceding the broader argument. “Ah, that’s a good point”, or “Yes, that bothers me as well”, or “I can understand that perspective”, or “Allow me to rephrase that”; these can all disarm sticking points, allowing you to move on with the discussion.
Lesson #6: Stay focused on the issue at hand
Often, arguments get confused by tangents, or bogged down by floods of claims (what’s known as a Gish Gallop). You needn’t feel compelled to address every claim that’s made—and, in fact, doing so may even undermine your position. For instance, you may get so caught up in the weeds that no one (not you, not them, and certainly not people around you) can keep track of the argument. Or you may inadvertently allow yourself to poison the well by defending a more contentious, tangential claim. Stay focused on one issue, and don’t engage with the noise.
Tip: Try saying “There’s a lot to unpack there, let’s address your major point”, or “We could have an entire discussion about that, but let’s save it for another time”, or even “The evidence is less clear on that issue, and it’s independent of my argument.”
Lesson #7: Be prepared to take heat from your team
Too often, arguments are less about convincing the other side, and more about convincing your side. In other words, people are eager to reinforce membership in their own tribe by drawing battle lines with the out-group. Given this, if you’re following the above lessons, you’re almost certainly going to take some “friendly fire”. At some point, you need to determine which is more important to you: having a productive conversation in which you potentially influence another person’s opinion, or reinforcing your allegiance to your side. Frequently, these are at odds; you’re going to make more friends by grandstanding.
Tip: Given this, one-on-one discussions can sometimes be more productive, as they prevent both sides from playing to their respective choirs. If this isn’t practical, you need to be willing to reign in people you otherwise agree with in order to avoid derailing the discussion.
Lesson #8: Don’t expect capitulation
Sometimes we go into a conversation looking to “win”, and we measure “winning” by the other person saying, “I am wrong, you are right”. That’s just not going to happen, so stop waiting for it. Sometimes that’s out of pride. More often it’s simply because they need time to mull over your arguments and reconcile them with their prior beliefs. Your job is instead to plant a seed of doubt, based on your best argument, and allow it time to germinate. If you keep hammering home your point until the person surrenders the argument, you’re not only likely to fail, but very well may do more damage to your cause in the process by coming across as a bully.
Lesson #9: Know when to walk away
We all hit that point where we’re frustrated, angry, and on a short fuse. Maybe you’ve just had one too many arguments with an unreasonable person. Or, perhaps, the other side did something you find completely unacceptable. Or, maybe, you’re just having a bad day, and don’t have the patience to entertain disagreeable ideas. It happens. Just know that’s a good time to walk away. Your feelings may well be justified, but they’re unlikely to yield a positive outcome. Trying to sway someone’s position from a place of anger is a recipe for escalation.
Lesson #10: Be mindful of the onlookers
Sometimes we get so caught up in an argument with another person, we forget about the people on the sidelines. This is especially true in online forums, but can also be true at dinner parties or social gatherings. If you find yourself engaging with a True Believer, you’re not going to change their mind, but you do have an opportunity to expose bystanders to a different perspective. If you allow your frustration with the other person to devolve into petty insults or attacks, or get caught up in the minutia of irrelevant details, then you’re missing an opportunity to influence the “silent majority”. Present your best arguments, and then bow out.
I really wish there were shortcuts to changing the world; some ratchet that we could adjust to expand people’s views. True, on occasion, there are major events or popular works that have a broad influence on public opinion. Outside of that, however, we’re left to individual conversations. And, ultimately, if you can’t influence those around you—those who you have a personal connection with—then you’re unlikely to make headway changing the broader society. The above lessons require time, patience, and thoughtfulness, and even then don’t guarantee outcomes. But they’re our best chance at breaking through without contributing to more polarization and resentment in the process.
Note: This is certainly not a comprehensive list, and your mileage may vary based on the subject and your audience. If you have additional insights or approaches you’ve found effective, please share them in the comments.