The art of disagreeing...and keeping your relationships intact

Tired of being seen and not heard, lifestyle writer Abbie-Joelle Skliarsky learns how to disagree without losing your rag – or your relationships

We disagreement-avoiders have had a tough 12 months. It’s been a perfect confrontation storm, what with Brexit, the US election, the Black Lives Matter movement, a global pandemic, anti-maskers dissing maskers and anti-vaxxers vs pro-vaxxers, to name a handful of the past year’s divisive issues.

So why are millions of us still doing everything we can to sidestep disagreeable differences of opinion? Dr Jeanne Safer, psychotherapist and author of I Love You, But I Hate Your Politics (Biteback Publishing), explains: ‘Differing opinions are difficult. People like to have people agree with them.’

Georgie Nightingall, life coach and founder of Trigger Conversations, adds: ‘We have a core need to be liked and to belong, so to overcome this we have to take a risk that could threaten that need being met.’ She also points out the stakes are higher when it comes to close friends, family and colleagues – which is why it can be harder to have challenging conversations with them.

So, if you’re sick of being a disagreement dodger, follow these Convo Commandments and let those respectful debates commence.

Examine your motive

Before plunging in, check your mindset, advises Georgie. ‘Think: “Do I want to convert someone because I believe my views are correct? Or am I interested in trying to find out how someone has a different set of beliefs or views of the world?” This is critical and often forgotten.’ If your agenda is to change someone’s mind, you’ll put them on the defence from the start. Dr Safer agrees: ‘A lot of people will stick an article in their partner’s face and say “read this”. I call it “article thrusting” – it’s a disaster. It just doesn’t work, it’s offensive. It’s like saying “your opinions aren’t right, have my opinions”.’

Talk less, listen more

We know it’s tempting to ‘mic drop’ the jaw-dropping statistic you’ve got up your sleeve, but hold that thought. ‘The most important thing in a conversation is the other person feeling seen and heard,’ says Georgie. ‘Even if you think you have a great point to make, interrupting someone or challenging them too early can have a negative impact, breaking rapport and leading the other person to feel unheard and unwilling to engage in seeing other perspectives.’

Capitalise on common ground

Don’t always assume your views are as different as, say, Kim Kardashian’s dress sense is from Kate Middleton’s. ‘It’s all about specifics,’ says Georgie. ‘When someone says something very abstract (eg, “I’m pro/anti-Brexit”), you may disagree overall. But the disagreement could be very narrow.’ For example, even if you’re anti-Brexit generally, you might still want fairer trade terms. ‘In a situation like this, it’s good to start by showing any common ground you may have first, then following with the bit you disagree on,’ adds Georgie. ‘There will always be something you agree on – no matter how small – and naming this builds trust and opens people up to listening.’

Pick words wisely

Even the most confident of conversationalists can morph into a stroppy 14-year-old if a viewpoint is getting on their nerves. But drop the digs and use clever conversation techniques. ‘Saying “yes, but” instantly makes the “yes” sound insincere,’ says Georgie. ‘Whereas saying “yes, and” acknowledges what they’re saying and adds to it.’ She cautions against using the phrase ‘don’t you think?’, as it can trigger defensiveness: ‘You’re assuming they haven’t thought about something, or that they should think that.’ And if you want someone to carry on talking or explain themselves further? Try echoing – it shows you’re interested and really listening. ‘Pick one to three key words from what someone has said and use them in your response, and they will keep talking with more depth and breadth.’

Put politics to one side

We get it: political views feel like deal-breakers. But Dr Safer suggests thinking differently. ‘Politics has become central to our identity – but that’s misunderstanding its role. People have decent moral foundations on both sides of the aisle.’ So, if your Labour-supporting soul struggles after finding out your neighbours  are Tory supporters, or vice versa, remember Dr Safer’s advice. ‘Politics isn’t character or a core value. People who disagree can still have the same core values. Cutting out people on the other side means that half the world is your enemy, which is tragic.’

There’s no right and wrong

Remember that these conversations aren’t about being right and wrong. ‘That’s narrow-minded,’ says Georgie. ‘Everyone is right, and everyone is wrong, according to their beliefs – it’s subjective. The language of “rightness” and “wrongness” is unhelpful. You’re trying to map and understand the way someone sees the world and what leads to their beliefs.’ Noted.

Take control and walk away

If someone crosses the line, it’s important to establish boundaries. ‘If the way they’re expressing their views is upsetting your mental health, you shouldn’t be around them,’ says Dr Safer. ‘Take charge and don’t put up with offensive things – even from family.’ When might it be time to walk away? ‘If someone is constantly trying to have these conversations with you, question why you have them in your life,’ says Dr Safer. If they’re aggressive, angry or obnoxious, she advises trying one of these lines: ‘I don’t think this is the tone we can discuss this in.’/‘I’d really prefer not to talk about this right now.’/‘This isn’t a conversation I want to have.’

Agree to disagree

Rethink the notion that agreeing to disagree is a cop-out: there’s huge power in knowing when to move on. If you’ve tried to understand each other’s point of view and are getting nowhere, Georgie says, ‘Ask yourself: “Am I feeling emotional? Am I in a good space to be able to listen to this, or shall we take a break? Are we getting to a point where we’re going to damage the relationship?”’ If you’re heading for rocky territory, it might be time to call time on the conversation.

Georgie’s stay-calm mantras

1. Put down the wine: ‘We’re more likely to say something we regret when we’re drinking. We may find it harder to step out of our own world view, making it harder to empathise with someone else.’

2. Take it slow: You’ve got lots of good points, but don’t word-vomit them at the other person. ‘Angry people are more likely to talk at a faster, louder pitch. So slowing down changes the energy for the better.’

3. Don’t raise your voice: ‘Highly reactive behaviour on your part, or theirs, shows that you’re not in control or making a positive impact. Being calm is all about self-awareness.’

4. Pause: ‘Pausing and being calm yourself will positively impact and influence them.’