Avoid arguments: Therapists share how to politely disagree when lives are on the line
Experts weigh in how to handle tough conversations.
All it takes is a few minutes of browsing comments on social media platforms like Twitter, Youtube, or Reddit to realize how divisive of a time we’re living in right now.
I mean, people were at each other’s throats about countless issues before issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic and extreme racism hit the mainstream. Now that we’ve all been involuntarily thrown into this weird reality where we’re being attacked by both an invisible enemy and a force meant to protect us, things have gotten even more tense.
As someone who has chosen to build wealth and pursue a life of financial independence, I’m no stranger to controversy. In my experience, there’s typically two reactions when I first tell a new acquaintance about my FIRE journey. More often than not, I get people who are genuinely interested and have a number of questions about my process and strategy. Sometimes you can even see their eyes light up as they begin to crunch the numbers in their head and realize that financial independence is not impossible.
The second type of reaction also includes rapid-fire questions, but it tends to feel more like a cross examination in a criminal trial. I have had multiple interactions with people where it’s clear that their goal is to dispel FIRE as a myth. In the past, I considered it sporting to engage with these people. I would share with them the success stories that I know, and relay the proven strategies that have helped people retire by 40. Sometimes these conversations have remained civil, other times it has been adversarial with subtle barbs being exchanged.
Recently however, I have stopped taking the bait. If someone doesn’t believe me, or wants to press me on my FIRE journey, I’ll usually find a way to swiftly change the subject. It just doesn’t seem worth the time or energy anymore to argue with someone I just met– or worse yet, a stranger on the internet. In these scenarios, I’ve never changed anyone’s mind, nor has anyone changed mine; so what’s the point? Why get all worked up for nothing?
There are people out there that no matter how much evidence you produce will still scream from the hilltops that the world is flat, or the moon landing was staged, or that Prince Charles is a vampire.
But is completely disengaging the right way to handle disagreement?
In the current climate, I don’t believe that it is. Historically, large scale tragedies on American soil have brought us closer together. The attack on Pearl Harbor united us as a country and drew us into World War 2. The attack on the World Trade Center caused an incredible surge of patriotism as we were drawn into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Now we’re engaged in a war with an enemy that we can’t see and don’t understand. But for this war, things are much different. Each of us plays a key role in this fight. This time, we won’t be watching the action unfold on television, in a land that’s so far away that it’s hard to even conceptualize it as a real place. We’re seeing the devastation all around us, and every American has the opportunity to either help our chances, or hurt our chances.
We’ve all been impacted by the devastation of COVID-19 and if we’re going to beat it, we need people to come together again. Which means that communication has never been more important than it is right now.
But when we’re dealing with a topic where lives are literally at stake, how do I keep my emotions in check? How do I convey my point without raising my voice or getting heated? How do I share a difference of opinion on a hot button issue without burning a bridge?
We decided to interview some experts for their advice.
Mental health pros offer quick tips on navigating arguments when necessary
Who hasn’t found themself in a conversation where at least once they wished for that lifeline on what to say next? I decided to reach out to a few of the mental health professionals in my network to get some advice for these trying times. I received helpful advice from Davina Kotulski, Ph. D. psychology, Leslie Yeargers, LMFT intern, and Lori Eberly, LCSW.
I’ve condensed their responses and compiled them into one Q&A that follows.
Is there value in trying to persuade someone when you find out they have an opinion that’s polar opposite to yours or is walking away best?
Trying to persuade someone sounds inherently manipulative to me. I've always felt it is important to speak from your heart and share your truth. Sometimes your truth is personal experience and sometimes it's education that the other person doesn't have. By sharing your truth, there is no arguing with personal experience. The other person can either hear how it is impacting you or others and choose to respond in a way that makes sense to them.
The problem I see with this question is the word persuade. It assumes "I'm right and you're wrong." There is no value in attempting to persuade because such attempts most often fail, which is why shifting toward a stance of curiosity and attempting to influence their thinking is better. For example, instead of presenting a litany of stats and facts that prove a point, I might say, "I find it interesting that you believe it's OK to separate children from their parents. Tell me more about that...why do you think so?” The conversation keeps going and, if the person feels truly heard and that their perspectives have been considered, they are more likely to listen to you when you share your perspectives. You may never agree but you may plant a seed of an idea they’ll contemplate later.
Depends on who that person is and the value of the relationship. Trying to persuade somebody on Facebook that you've never met is futile. Having a conversation with a family member or friend, where trust is present, could yield influence over time. However, if the relationship is strained or tenuous, don't expect much. Changing people's minds is exceptionally rare on issues that tie to core values and principles. Hopping on our soap boxes and flinging data does little to shift perspective. Asking questions and practicing discovery is the only way I know of to foster understanding and build bridges between disparate thinking.
Can you offer three tips for navigating these conversations?
Tell your story, speak your truth from your heart, and educate. Never shame or seek to make anyone feel inferior.
I have one big tip. Do not overlook the value of listening, listening and listening some more. As Leticia Nieto says in her book Beyond Inclusion, Beyond Empowerment, the most effective way to have influence is to acknowledge the person's distress, worry, fear, or anger towards your belief. The important point here is that their feelings are real, even when their feelings are not founded in truth. Throughout the course of your conversation, no fewer than 15 times do you need to acknowledge their feelings, showing that they are being heard and understood. It’s only at this point when you could challenge their viewpoint and have a chance of influencing their thinking. The final steps should be affirming your relationship to this person, letting them know you don't agree, and then ending the conversation. It goes like this: "I'm glad we had this conversation. I care about you and I want to support you. And I have to tell you I do not entirely agree with you." After they reply, move to end the conversation quickly by saying, "I'd be happy to discuss this more with you and another time, but now I need to go." Watch your distress level and don't get pulled into an argument. Sometimes this type of exchange may lead people to self-reflect and possibly ask themselves, "I wonder what part of what I've said my friend disagrees with." This is the question that is growth-inducing and thought-changing.
Evaluate your own motivation -- why are you entering this conversation? Assess desired outcomes -- what do you hope will come out of it? Commit to listening first -- are you able to listen and practice curiosity? Can you put your own judgement down?
What are your thoughts on whether we as individuals can try to heal this civic divide or should try to heal it?
We must keep an open heart when listening to others. We must remember, as Gandhi said, the enemy is not the person, it is the untruth. At the same time, never allow yourself to be abused. Healing the divide can only happen when we are willing to listen respectfully to one another. Like in the documentary The Color of Fear, we must be willing to hear each other's concerns and fears. However, we must also recognize there are power differentials and people in power and privilege do not know what it is like to walk in the shoes of people who don't have power and privilege. Doors open for some people that remained tightly closed for others. People are viewed and treated differently based on their gender, color of their skin, religious and ethnic identity and sexual orientation among other things. We may be created equally but people are not treated equally.
We should absolutely try to heal the divide. If we can't heal it, then we won't last long as a species. If we don't, climate change will eventually get us. Either that or our own fear of one another will result in violence and we'll end up annihilating one another. I'd rather see us work towards healing and die trying, rather than just give up because we don't believe it's possible.
We need to look critically at our circles of influence and where we can have the greatest impact. We need to look at our motives and assess our level of self-righteousness. In my own anti-racist work, I have to look at myself before I can be of any use anywhere else. I have to have a regular practice of self-awareness, accountability partners, teachers and resources. I have to look at my own patterns and behaviors, examine my own privilege and the lies I've been fed. To fail to do my own work first leaves me ineffective at best and dangerous at worst. My own spiritual practice and relationships skills call me to care about others and believe in healing broken relationships and systems. But I am not the Healer, and as a white woman, I have to notice my own tendencies to be a Savior or hero. I can't speak to what anybody else should or shouldn't do. But there are areas that I am passionate about, that include anti-racism and intersectional feminism, that do not allow me to stay silent or stuck in passivity.
Speak up, but be intentional
All of this is to say: You’re right to stand up for things that you’re passionate about, but it’s important to remember the humanity of the person (or people) that you’re arguing with. It’s totally possible to have a civil discourse, you just have to be intentional about it.
So, empower yourself to speak up about your passions and causes close to you, like FIRE or staying socially distanced during this pandemic. Try to broach the subject in a non-aggressive way, and let your passion shine through. You might just change some minds!
Have you faced a difficult conversation? What was it about? How did you handle it? Share your tips in the comments below!