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A Field Guide to Arguing: 4 Tips for Navigating Difficult Conversations

This resource is provided by ACSA Partner4Purpose ThoughtExchange. 

Talking with someone we don’t see eye-to-eye with can be hard—so hard that many of us spend our lives tiptoeing around such tough conversations. Some of us even try not to think about them.

How do we keep them away? We set up whole systems designed to keep disagreement out of our lives. We surround ourselves with people who share our values, incomes and education levels. And we tell Google and Facebook to make sure we only see the things we like.

We protect ourselves from different points of view so well, when we find ourselves outside that place of agreement, it can feel like being lost in an unfamiliar wilderness.

Why I disagree (and don’t consider myself disagreeable)

I spend plenty of time in that wilderness. It’s not because I like the view or find it fun getting chased by wolves and whatnot. I have tough conversations because I think they’re important.

Yes, tough conversations aren’t easy. But having them lets us learn from each other by understanding where we’re the same and where we’re different. And finding our way through them has a whole bunch of other benefits like building community, increasing trust, creating change and bringing people together around things that matter. Do all of the above and chances are, we’re well on our way to becoming better leaders. Not to mention better human beings.

Convinced that this place is worth exploring? Okay, it’s time to let you know that the road ahead is long and rocky. Even after wearing out the soles on a couple pairs of boots, I still find it hard to find my way through a heated argument sometimes.

Luckily, I’ve learned some tricks we can use to make navigation a bit easier.

1. Hit pause and dig deep

When we’re in the middle of a disagreement, we’re pretty much always caught up in feelings of anger and resentment to some extent.  The first challenge is to rein it in and manage those feelings. They’re a normal part of being human. And also try hold back on judgements about the other person. (So much for unitasking.)

Start by holding our horses on those two natural reactions. Then dig deeper by asking some questions that help us understand the person we’re arguing with. Only then can we start figuring out what the real issue is and the feelings behind it.

2. Let go of our story

We all come from different places and backgrounds. Each of us brings our own story and values to the party. In arguments, we often react and make judgements based everything that’s come before.

If we can let go of our self interest, even just briefly, it gives us some time to think about the other person’s story. What might that be? Whatever they’re saying is informed by their whole life up to this point—and you might not have any idea what they’ve experienced.

When we let go of our story, we have the chance to better understand the other person’s. Along the way, we build empathy—an important milestone on the journey to better conversations.

3. Find common ground

We’ve been riding along pretty smoothly, but all of a sudden we went off the path and now we’re stuck in our opinions. Specifically, how ours is so right and the other’s is so wrong.

While it might seem like we’re standing at opposite sides of a chasm, with nothing in between, there’s often something that we can agree on that will help bridge the gap. It might be the smallest thing, but if we can find it and focus on that, it can become something that brings us together.

For example, I often get asked why I don’t eat meat and have trouble understanding why others do eat it. While I might disagree with someone who is wholeheartedly carnivorous, we can possibly agree that it’s important to eat healthy food and do what we believe is the right thing for the planet.

Finding common ground like this is another waypoint on the road to empathy. And learning where we resonate with each other might just be the most important way to get us there. That’s especially true if the other person is coming from a place of fear and anger.

4. Consider this a starting point

Yes, we’ve come a long way and I hate to disappoint. But we’ve only reached the beginning. People are complicated and values can run deep. We might not be able to change someone’s mind with just one conversation. What we can change is our approach.

Don’t try to change their opinion. Try changing how you react. Focus on your feelings, manage yourself, and you’ll be more open to hearing the other person’s point of view. And in the process of changing your reactions, you open yourself to changing your own perspective. Even if it’s just a new way of seeing the other person.

Don’t expect instant results

Simply plugging all the above points into our GPS and using them as a guide in our next tough conversation doesn’t mean the path will get easier right away.

As humans, our gut reactions can get the better of us in arguments and take us to places our brains don’t want to go. So don’t expect perfection from just reading this article. We’ll still face fears and conversational failures. We won’t become experts overnight. It takes time, practice and patience with both ourselves and others.

If we lean into the conflict and practice keeping an open mind, eventually we can learn to find our way through even the most treacherous conversational terrain.

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