How to Talk to Someone Who Doesn’t Share Your Views

December 13, 2023

As families and friends gather during the holidays, conversations can turn to world events and politics. In a flash, what started as a pleasant chat devolves into a shouting match with Uncle Bob. Does it have to end this way? Or can we remain civil while disagreeing?

“Neuroscience helps us to understand why we might get worked up during tense conversations,” said Tiffiny Hughes-Troutman, professor of the practice in the School of Psychology. “When one is working through sensitive and serious issues internally, emotions may run high.”

Hughes-Troutman said if a disagreement feels like a threat cognitively, a person’s body can go into fight-or-flight mode, which takes control over rational thinking. In physiological terms, fight-or-flight may present as a fast heart rate, anxiety, increased perspiration, and other signs of stress.

“The ‘fight’ contributes to intensified conflict and can show up when we come across too aggressively or shout,” she said. “The ‘flight’ can lead us to withdraw or become disengaged from the discussion, and depending on the circumstance, this withdrawal can escalate the situation.”

Hughes-Troutman said it is possible to manage our emotions and enter productive and respectful discussions. She suggests employing the following strategies to facilitate the conversation:

  • Focus on the breath. Breath control helps us to concentrate on slow, deep breathing, calms our heart rate, and facilitates a state of presence and focus on the conversation. Breathing techniques such as diaphragmatic breathing can reverse the stress response.
  • Acknowledge your emotions and feelings. Both emotions and feelings are activated during difficult discussions. Emotions are physiological responses that originate as sensations in the body whereas feelings are influenced by our emotions and are generated from mental thoughts. Developing emotional awareness limits reactivity and promotes thoughtfulness and compassion.
  • Don’t rush the discussion. Recognizing the significance of psychological safety, it is important to devote enough time to have a thoughtful, productive discussion and to have such discussions in spaces where all parties feel comfortable.
  • Take a break, if needed. Taking a break is not only an action, but also an effective communication skill that may result in a slower pace and more time for thoughtful reflection. The momentum to finish a conversation can feel compelling, but the better approach may be to say, “I am feeling upset; can we take a 15-minute break?”

Even under the best circumstances, the question remains can we overcome our differences?

Sonia Alvarez-Robinson, associate vice president for Strategy and Organizational Effectiveness, uses a technique called polarity management for guidance. “Managing polarities does not look for a right or wrong answer, a winner or loser, or even to make the polarities go away. Rather, it is a way to draw out the best parts of the differing viewpoints so that those involved can coexist in healthy and productive ways.

Alvarez-Robinson, who has a doctorate in human and organizational behavior, said if the differing viewpoints are ongoing — and unlikely to change — and the people involved are interdependent, like a family or a work team, then the differences may not be solvable, but they can be managed.

“In my 30 years of helping organizations improve performance and achieve their strategic goals, I have learned the only way for differences to be leveraged as a strength is by effectively managing polarities,” she said. “Diversity of thought does make human dynamics challenging, but it also can make an organization great.”




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Victor Rogers

Institute Communications