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.
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.)