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How to Bridge the Gap When You Disagree

Ten simple rules re-create courtesy and help us stay close across deep opinion divides.

by Sarah Mahoney

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Whether the topic is politics, religion or the best way to teach kids math, it can seem like the whole world is at war. Name-calling on the nightly news. Factions on Facebook. Twitter tirades. Some days, the planet feels like an increasingly hostile place to call home.

Are differences of opinion really much more black and white—even uglier—these days? The omnipresence of social media can make you think so. Daniel L. Buccino, M.S.W, an assistant professor and director of The Civility Initiative at John Hopkins University, puts the issue into perspective. “It’s a phenomenon that’s existed for thousands of years,” he says. “People always have this sense that things are getting worse and that those people over there are the real problem.” That hell-in-a-hand-basket misperception builds as we move through midlife. “Older generations always think kids have no respect. It’s easy to forget that our parents thought that about us, as did their parents.”

So the next time a polarizing argument makes you feel hopelessly deadlocked, it’s worth remembering that people have always disagreed, even if social media and the relentless TV news cycle makes the conflict feel more intense.

See also: Humility: Lifelong Learning’s Secret Sauce

When arguments break out at the dinner table, a typical approach is to cling to old-fashioned etiquette: Never discuss politics, religion or anything controversial. But experts tell us that sticking our collective heads in the sand isn’t working very well, especially if we want things to change. Take race, currently one of the most important—if painfully sensitive—topics in communities all around the country. “The biggest mistake we make is not talking about race,” Buccino says, noting our tendency for “changing the subject when it comes up. We do that because it’s uncomfortable, but if we can tolerate the discomfort, we’ll be able to talk about it more effectively.”

“I don’t believe in bailing out of uncomfortable conversations,” agrees Ande Diaz, associate provost for diversity and organizational development at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania. “If we’re open and respectful—and working from the point of view that everybody’s opinion matters, even if we don’t agree—we can learn to talk about all kinds of difficult things.”

The right vocabulary is essential. Here’s what experts say can be effective when we hit those brick walls that divide us, whether it’s an in-law fiercely folding his arms across his chest, a teenager slamming a door or a close friend’s shrill political repetitions. The key is to remember that we’re striving for dialogue—a conversation—not a debate. “Debate has a winner and a loser,” Diaz says. “Often we listen in order to make our argument stronger, not to understand alternative viewpoints. Dialogue is different. We’re trying to understand the other person, not formulating our rebuttal.”

Experts offer these 10 concepts to bridge disagreements—politely and with kindness—across the fiercest divides.

1. Stay in touch with your inner adult.The golden rule of civility, says Buccino, “is that we stay civil because we are civil, not because others are.” That can be easy to forget when people start using insults or calling names, “but we can try and reach for the adult within.” Buccino thinks those in midlife have an advantage over younger people with hotter heads. “At this age in life, we know long-term relationships are going to be more important than short-term disagreements.”

2. Use “I” statements. Speaking only for yourself is more polite, because you’re not trying to represent a large group of people or put someone back on their heels by saying, “You should …” It’s more authentic and inspires others to express themselves that way too, leading to more personal—and meaningful—conversations.

3. Try these three magic words: “Tell me more.”“When people are getting louder or repeating the same point several times, that’s a good sign they think they aren’t being heard,” says Diaz. “Asking them to elaborate shows you want to understand them.” It doesn’t mean you're changing your mind or conceding a point, “just that you’re interested in their perspective. Probe gently until you understand why the viewpoint is different from your own.”

4. Be a poll watcher.If you find yourself baffled about how any sane person can disagree with your view on x, y or z, it’s a sign you’ve become too rigid. Look up public opinion polls. (The Pew Center, Rasmussen Reports and Gallup all have robust websites, touching on everything from gun ownership to homework.) Understanding that many people share opposing views can help soften a stiffening stance.

5. Say “Ouch!”When a conversation starts to get nasty or personal, Buccino recommends a single word: “Ouch!” Without pointing a finger, it lets the other person know they’re hitting a tender spot. It’s likely to cause them to pause, and dial down the conversation’s intensity.

6. Challenge your own opinions.Diaz says it’s beneficial to push yourself into new territory. Let’s say the role of the police in your community is of great interest. “Check out websites that explore the complexity of those issues, like Everyday Democracy, which focuses on resolving conflicts at the community level. Read up on study circles, which break complex issues down into small, manageable bits. It’s important to inform our own opinions with the opposing point of view.” (Diaz also recommends reading about the Sustained Dialogue Institute, founded by Harold Saunders, best known for his work in the Middle East peace talks of the 1970s.)

7. Reach for the respectful response. While there’s never a cause to feign agreement, it is true and polite to respond with sentences like, “That’s certainly a valid perspective,” or “I appreciate your opinion,” says Buccino, who is also a huge fan of a simple thank you. “Let’s say someone is trying to win me over to a point of view,” he says. “I can say, ‘Thank you for your concern,’ and mean it, even if I disagree.” That works for nosy and intrusive questions, too. “It means I am giving this person the benefit of the doubt, that they do care about me even if I don’t like the way they are prying. It sets a limit with someone, but also acknowledges a connection.”

8. Talk less, listen more.One of the core precepts of courtesy, says Buccino, is that it’s better to understand than to be understood. Diaz likes to go back to a key concept of conflict resolution: “The idea is to listen deeply enough to be changed.”

9. Postpone, but don’t give up.If a discussion with someone you care about gets too heated, it can be beneficial to say, “I’d like to hear more about your views, but maybe this isn’t the best time. Let’s talk about this later,” Diaz says. But it’s a mistake to never pick up the disagreement again, especially with family members. “We want to let them know we care what they think,” she says. “Of course we won't always agree. But everyone should have a right to express themselves.”

10. Sprinkle intergenerational conversation into your life. Talking to fired-up younger people can help fight that “it’s getting worse” dread, and talking to older people helps put progress in perspective. Buccino thinks race is a great example: “We may think racial problems are getting worse. And while they may not be getting better fast enough, it’s easy to forget we’ve had eight years with an African-American president. Yes, there’s more work to be done. But it’s good to remember we have made clear signs of progress.”