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How to Talk to Loved Ones Who Disagree with You

2022 Spring
by Heather L. Voorhees
Assistant Professor of Communication Studies, University of Montana

Considering the global pandemic, increasing political division, and international tensions, it can feel like we are living in a time of constant conflict—and the stress of contentious national and world affairs may be trickling into our close relationships.

Perhaps you have recently lost touch with a friend after a political disagreement. Maybe time with family members is now strained because of COVID-related arguments. Or maybe you simply find yourself constantly walking on eggshells these days to avoid a misunderstanding. When it comes to big, important topics—religion, politics, economic policy, to name a few—conflict between family members and friends might not be totally avoidable, but it is manageable.

The following are research-based communication insights on how to handle conflict with friends, loved ones, co-workers, and others. Not every tactic will work in every situation, but hopefully something below will resonate and help you feel more confident communicating with the people you care about—even if you disagree with them.

First, stop thinking you can “teach” someone why they’re “wrong.” It’s tempting to think that people disagree simply because they don’t have the “right” information – if they only knew the facts, they would definitely change their mind, right? Wrong. Research has shown that preaching to someone can actually strengthen their opposing belief. When someone feels attacked or belittled, or that you are taking away their freedom or personal control, they dig in their heels and double-down on their intention to protect their autonomy by contradicting you—this is called reactance. Resist the urge to send relatives and friends that news story online that “proves them wrong,” or an article by a so-called expert on your side. It won’t help, and it will probably make things worse.  

Ensure you truly understand their viewpoint, in the first place. Very often, we make assumptions and generalizations without having all the information: “He voted for Candidate Z? He must not care at all about the environment.” Direct Perception Checking is a quick, three-step process to help truly understand where someone’s coming from. It’s as easy as Describe, Offer Multiple Interpretations, and Ask for Clarification.

  • Describe the situation using factual, neutral statements and avoiding emotion or accusations: “I notice that every time I try to discuss the upcoming election, you seem to be annoyed and usually leave the room.”
  • Offer at least two interpretations for the situation. Doing this acknowledges that you may not have all the information, and that you are open to a new interpretation: “It might be that you just don’t care about politics, or that you are afraid that our conversation may turn into a full-blown fight.”
  • Request clarification from the other person. Now that they know exactly how you perceive the situation, they can offer their own explanation. This opens the dialogue. “Can you help me understand why you seem reluctant to talk about this with me?”

Try Motivational Interviewing. Instead of asking someone to change, it’s more productive to help them want to change. Motivational Interviewing is a tool developed by clinical psychologists to help people overcome addiction, improve their diets—even to reach peaceful divorce settlements. It is not convincing or persuading someone to change, it’s the process of helping someone work through complex (and perhaps contradictory) feelings about a behavior or belief, while still respecting their autonomy and freedom of choice. Sometimes when people are asked to vocalize their beliefs, they find inconsistencies between their beliefs and their behaviors and become motivated to shrink that gap. It goes something like this:

  • Using calm, non-judgmental language, ask a general question about their belief. Instead of saying, “I just don’t understand why you won’t get a flu shot,” ask something more broad, like, “How serious do you think the flu is?”
  • When they respond, acknowledge positive things about their answer and probe for further clarification: “So, it sounds like you agree that the flu DOES harm vulnerable people. What do you think it takes to protect these people?”
  • As the conversation continues, repeat what you hear the person saying in emotion-free language to demonstrate that you are hearing them: “So, you believe that flu shots are part of the larger plan to protect people from the flu. Is that correct?”
  • Don’t directly challenge their ideas, but call attention to the nuances in their thinking and kindly probe for clarification: “If I’m hearing you correctly, you believe that flu shots are one tool to protect people who are immune-compromised. That being the case, why do you think some people should get flu shots but others don’t need to?”
  • If the person acknowledges inconsistencies in their thinking, ask them to elaborate: “It sounds like you’re not 100% against getting a flu shot. Is there anything that might make you more likely to get one?”

Remember, you’re not trying to “win” this conversation, and you can’t expect someone to immediately change their mind. Motivational Interviewing simply encourages the other person to re-consider their actions, and gives them a safe space to re-think their beliefs.