Whenever people ask me what I studied in college and I tell them “I have a bachelor’s degree in International Relations and International Law,” they make a confused expression because they have no idea what that means.
It is basically a mix of politics, history, and law, but mostly politics. As you can understand, in an environment where politics are constantly discussed, not only tensions can easily arise, but they also usually escalate before you can even blink.
Having spent five years watching other people constantly disagreeing with each other (myself included) in an unhealthy and disrespectful way, I felt the need to come up with some ways to improve my conversations with people with whom I disagreed on any given subject — and make my disagreements productive instead of ugly.
What follows is a 5-step guide I use to navigate my disagreements and that can help you, too, become a better conversationalist when engaging with people you don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye with.
1. Separate the Person From the Argument
When you’re about to disagree with someone, make sure that you separate the person from the argument at hand. A mistake I often see people do when they’re in the middle of a disagreement is saying things like:
- “Of course you would think that — you have no morals”
- “It’s just like you to be so stubborn”
- “It’s no wonder you have these beliefs considering the environment you grew up in”
Saying things like that will only escalate the disagreement and put the other person on the defensive. You must learn to argue without attacking the other person’s character, or criticizing their personality/mindset/values.
Focus on the argument at hand, and make sure it remains external to the other person’s character or the relationship you have with one another.
2. Give the Other Person Space to Respond
Every healthy disagreement should take place in the form of a dialogue. That means that both you and the person you found yourself disagreeing with should first actively listen and then respond to each point their interlocutor has made.
Most people get so passionate when they disagree about a particular subject with someone that not only they fail to listen to the other person but they also don’t even give them space to respond.
I get it — when you argue about something you’re very passionate about you become overwhelmed with emotions, in which case it’s extremely easy to lose your patience (along with your manners) and find yourself unable to stop talking until you’ve proven your point.
So, how you can prevent this from happening? It’s simple, really — breathe.
As Emma Seppälä explains in her article in Psychology Today:
“Given the fact that it is so difficult to change one’s emotions using thoughts alone — try “talking yourself out of” intense anger or anxiety — , learning to use the breath becomes a very powerful tool. Since it is so difficult “talk” our way out of our feelings, we can learn to “breathe” our way through them.”
Take a breath after the other person has finished their point; that will prevent you from rushing to object and it will make them feel like they are being heard.
Also, take a couple of breaths between your arguments so that you ease your emotions and give the other person the necessary time and space to respond.
3. Leave Sarcasm and Verbal Grenades at the Door
Most people struggle to hold their nerve during a disagreement and end up being sarcastic and fire verbal grenades at the person they’re arguing with. These verbal grenades might include:
- Swear words
- Personal attacks
- Any words that make the other person feel they’re being lectured (e.g. “You should learn…/I must teach you…”)
The thing is, when you bring the above verbal grenades along with sarcasm in a disagreement, you automatically diminish your credibility and trustworthiness and, well, look like a jerk.
If you don’t want to cause anger, hostility, or hurt to the other person, make sure you leave them at the door.
4. Have Some Evidence on Your Side
If you’ve found yourself in a disagreement, trying to persuade someone to change their mind on a particular subject, you need to ensure you know what you’re talking about.
In other words, you should make sure you have evidence on your side. You need to be able to support and justify your beliefs. If someone asks you “Why do you believe that/Why do you think that’s right” you can’t just answer “I just do/It just is”.
The information you use to construct and uphold your beliefs matters — especially when you’re trying to prove a point to someone. If you bring weak, fallacious arguments to a conversation you’ll never convince them to take you and your beliefs seriously.
Make sure you can either support your opinion with some valid arguments or cite some credible sources; otherwise, there’s no point in disagreeing with someone — the conversation is bound to reach a dead end.
5. Know When to Walk Away
Nowadays, whenever I’m in the middle of a heated disagreement and can sense things are about to get dark and ugly, I simply walk away.
I know that’s the hardest part. It’s always easier to just stay and bombard the other person with ugly words and passionate arguments until you’ve proven your point/persuaded them. But, sometimes that just can’t happen.
You can disagree and argue with a person for hours, even days, and still not get them to agree with you. Why?
Because, at the end of the day, we’re all different. We grow up in different environments, among people who share different values. On the other hand, some people simply aren’t open to the idea of listening, learning, adapting, and changing their minds.
I once came across this quote by American author Anthony Liccione:
“Trying to change someone, and their views, is like throwing paper into a fire.”
A disagreement doesn’t end only after you changed the other person’s mind — your efforts will likely go to waste anyway. Share your opinion, listen to the other person and be open to the idea of teaching and being taught. If you still can’t see eye to eye with them, you should simply walk away.
Disagreeing with someone isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as long as you do it in a healthy, respectful way.
The bad news? It doesn’t take much to let emotions get the better of you and for tension to escalate quickly. That doesn’t mean that you’re immature or weak. Rather, it means that you simply need more practice controlling your emotions and navigating a conversation in a calm, respectful way.
The good news? Practice makes perfect.