How to Argue with People You Know and Love—IRL

Disagreements these days can escalate quickly, but with the wisdom to know what to say and how to say it—and the courage to nurture meaningful dialogue—your efforts will be worthwhile. Here are a few tips.

Credit: Sol Cotti

Many of us feel inspired to work for change, advocate for the environment and social justice, and use our voices. In our zeal, we rush to the masses on the Internet, to hashtags and comment threads, a route we are taking more and more during this time of prolonged isolation. (In the months after the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, surveys showed that social media engagement increased among consumers globally by 61 percent.) Yet when presented with a real-life opportunity—in our social circles, around our dinner tables, in our neighborhoods—we often fall silent. We choose the comfortable option of brushing things under the rug or changing the subject instead of the courageous choice to start a conversation about difficult topics.

Most people have village-size hearts: One famous theory, Dunbar’s number, caps the number of meaningful friendships any single person can have at 150. In this light, we only really know and are known by the people we see regularly. And those are just the people most worth arguing with.

Let go of arguing with strangers on the Internet.

When you’re talking to someone behind a screen or someone you don’t know, you’re likely to switch into debate mode, backing up your argument with facts and stats, linking to other sources to prove your point. In addition to sparking open hostility, online arguments like these aren’t conducive to meaningful learning—after all, people tend to reject data that doesn’t support their opinions. (Just look at the persistence of climate denialism in the face of hard proof that climate change is real.)

There’s also evidence that focusing so much energy on social media conversations might be damaging your mental health: Psychologists have found that increased use of platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat can heighten loneliness and depression.

Seek out opportunities to talk face-to-face.

Unlike a half-hearted one-and-done conversation, when you have an ongoing presence in someone’s life, you can revisit the same topics over and over without having to sacrifice nuance for the sake of brevity. Over time, you can thoughtfully build on ideas and establish a long-term, steady trajectory of growth.

Arguing with people whom you really know ensures you’ll be a more open listener. You can ask questions and wait for a response before moving on. You may also be able to encourage your friend or family member to articulate why they hold a certain opinion, whether it’s about the existence of climate change or systemic racism, and then begin to sort through their feelings and opinions on the topic. There’s likely to be less ranting and more conversing.

With people you see on the regular, you may even experience the issue that’s on your mind together and find ways to talk about how that real-life event shapes your perspective.

Agree on a shared goal.

Whether you are setting a time to talk things through with someone you know and love, or find yourself needing to respond to a comment that didn’t sit right with you, establish what the goal of the conversation is from the start. You may choose to say something like, "Before we start, let's talk about what we each hope to walk away from this talk with," or "I want to make sure you feel heard. Can you tell me what you hope we get from this conversation?" This ensures that you’re both on the same page. Deciding on a common goal should be a joint effort. It might be about achieving clarity on a certain sticking point in your conversations or to understand one another better.

Give each other the benefit of the doubt.

From the start of the conversation to the end of it, adhere to the principle of charity. In other words, stop trying to prove that you’re “right” and start trying to learn. To establish trust, you can say, “I’ll do my best to give you the benefit of the doubt, because, ultimately, I want to understand you better,” and hold yourself to your word. Ask your conversation partner to do the same, even if you struggle to find the right words. Reiterate that you have good intentions and ask for their patience. Giving each other grace moves us out of gridlock and toward understanding.

Remember that conversation is more than words—but that words matter too.

Your posture, your tone, and your choice of words all help to communicate your point and should reinforce your goal. You might also find it’s helpful to talk on the go: Psychologists have found that walking together promotes a mindset that’s conducive to resolving interpersonal conflicts.

To ensure you and your partner can focus on what you’re saying, do your best to avoid raising your voices, talking over one another, or abruptly ending the conversation. Rather than seeing yourselves as opponents in an argument, approach the conversation as teammates working together.

Establish common ground.

It’s easy to become hyper-focused on our disagreements and lose sight of our common ground. Right from the start, talk through what you are united on. While people with different perspectives may have divergent opinions about the best vehicle or path for change, they probably want to arrive at the same place. For example, let’s say you’re having a conversation about racism with a family member, and you agree that it’s an important issue. You may think systemic racism is the primary issue while your family member’s primary concern is with individual acts of explicit racism—what is also known as fast violence. You both want to arrive at the same destination, a world with less racism, and yet you don’t see eye to eye about the best route to take. Rather than demonizing one another or dismissing each other as delusional, set your minds to learning about the experiences and information that shape your perspectives and go from there.

Consider the work of arguing as a part of deepening your relationships.

Arguing with strangers on the Internet is way too easy. You’re not obligated to be gentle, patient, or understanding; you can just speak and never listen; you won’t need to apologize when you’re wrong; and you can duck out whenever you like. But at the end of the comment thread, you’re not likely to have made much of an impact: As Jonah Berger, author of The Catalyst: How to Change Anyone’s Mind, has noted, “when others try to influence our decisions, we don’t just go along, we push back against the persuasive attempt.”

You will, however, need to respond with grace after a tough conversation with a family member, coworker, or friend, where you don’t have the luxury of hitting an “unfollow” button. You are given no choice but to go about conflict in a better way and do the uncomfortable work of seeking understanding. For those who prefer to avoid conflict, having difficult conversations may seem intimidating. But misunderstanding, resentment, and enmity thrive when important matters are left unspoken. Maintaining open and kind communication is well worth the effort for the sake of your relationships and for your cause.

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