How To Disagree Like An Adult

Photographed by Bianca Valle.
Over the past few years, we've seen a troubling trend emerge that has now become a full-blown epidemic. No, not Zika or Sansa Stark pregnancy rumors. We're talking about arguing. The fine art of disagreement has gone from polite debate to a no-holds-barred verbal cage match. And with the holidays upon us, things are about to, quite literally, start hitting close to home. If your Facebook feed is any indication, the concept of arguing in a thoughtful, education-focused manner is, well, not a thing. Instead, much of our online presence has turned into a jumble of derogatory terms, exclamation points, and all-caps diatribes. And those habits are bleeding over into real-world interactions, with rigorous discussion frequently deteriorating into a who-shouts-the-loudest affair that sounds straight out of The Bachelor. While that may make for good TV, it's not so great when it comes to IRL interactions with your loved ones. Now, we recognize that debating wether Rory Gilmore will end up with Jess or Dean is a whole lot different than arguing about the fundamental issue with the "All Lives Matter" narrative. But being able to approach a range of topics without alienating your friends and family is a key life skill. No one expects everyone to share the same values or ideas, but yelling and stamping your feet like a pissed-off child does exactly zero for your argument. When a Toddlers & Tiaras contestant is more composed than you, there's a problem. When it comes to the right way to have tough conversations, we are all in need of a little guidance right now, which is precisely why we sought out three argument experts for their very best advice. Who knows? Reading this might save your Thanksgiving — or at least get you through the first course.
Do Ask, Don't Tell
Flat-out telling someone why they are wrong is a rookie mistake. "There is a simple aphorism that says ask questions, and if you tell, tell stories," explains Maurice Hall, PhD, associate professor and chairperson for the department of communication at Villanova University. This tactic starts your conversation off on a more productive, mutually beneficial track. They have the chance to fully express their opinion without feeling immediately attacked, and you open yourself up to seeing someone else's perspective more clearly. "When you start lecturing other people on what their point of view should be, or don't they know why they're wrong, that's problematic," Hall says.

Don't Go Looking For A Fight
"If we approach everything as a fight and we start to see everybody who disagrees with us as an enemy, it makes everybody feel vulnerable and under attack" says Deborah Tannen, PhD, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and author of The Argument Culture. She adds, "If you do all of the talking, trying to convince somebody else that you're right and they're wrong, they probably won't listen or pay any attention. They'll get angry and they won't be influenced, but if you say, 'I really want to understand your perspective,' and give them a chance to talk and listen [you'll have more success]." But that all hinges on you actually wanting to understand their perspective in order to frame the conversation that way.
Photographed by Alexandra Gavillet.
One big mistake is to assume the worst about the other person's motives, Hall explains. "When we feel strongly politically, it's often tied to a deep sense of our values, and our morality, and our sense of how the world should be. We tend to perceive someone disagreeing on our politics as someone who is disagreeing with our fundamental sense of how we think the world should be in terms of morality... You decided for them that they are not seeing the world in the way you think the world should be seen."

Be An Active Listener
"Really meaningful conversation usually happens when people intend to learn each from the other, and that can only happen if you're willing to engage in a process of thoughtful listening," Hall says. "Thoughtful listening means that you quiet you're own internal monologue — you literally silence it — as the other person is speaking, and zero in on what they are saying. You're truly listening, because you're trying to find areas where you can agree — that's an act of will."

Don't Avoid Tough Conversations
There's an unspoken rule that politics, religion, and race are off-limits as topics of conversation. Welp, that's what got us into this mess in the first place — not talking to each other about the uncomfortable, emotionally charged issues we as a country face. "It's not that we shouldn't discuss politics or we shouldn't discuss religion — we should, but we need to figure out how to discuss it so that we learn," Hall explains. And be sure to manage your expectations. Hall adds: "We have to have less ambitious goals in these conversations. You're not going to change me from being a conservative if I'm conservative, or from being a liberal if I'm a liberal. You're not going to persuade somebody else who feels what they feel very deeply, but at the very least you may get them to hear something they didn't hear before."

Know When To Throw In The Towel
Another important skill? Learning how to sidestep that moment when a conversation turns into a full-blown fight. Once things start to go off the rails, Hall says that's the opportune time to excuse yourself from the conversation. "You can say things like, 'I think we should stop now. I cherish our relationship, and for that reason I think we are probably getting very angry and we need to stop the conversation." Hall explains that's a lot more effective than, "'I can't talk to you right now because you're just stupid.'" Jonathan Herring, professor of law at the University of Oxford and the author of How to Argue: Powerful, Persuasively, Politely, agrees. "The moment you start to feel you are getting annoyed, it can be good to say, 'Let's talk about this more another time' or, 'You have certainly given me a lot to think about.' And if you find you or the other person are just repeating yourself, that is a sign this conversation is going nowhere."

Photographed by Winnie Au.

Realize That Words Are More Than Just Words
Of course, people are bound to disagree on many subjects, but being able to discuss those differences of opinion in an honest, intelligent, civil way is more than just a true sign of adulting — it's imperative to the very structure of our democracy. "Once aggressive speech becomes acceptable, people become aggressive toward each other face-to-face, and that's really dangerous," says Tannen. Adds Hall, "[This is] essential to our democracy because if we don't learn how to have these conversations, we are going to tear ourselves apart at the seams." So, instead of dreading forthcoming conversations with your nearest and dearest, use this holiday break as a time to put these tips into action — but only if the need arises. Proper holiday etiquette calls for a turkey truce so you can enjoy those mashed potatoes without fear of familial strife. Save those trade-reform talks for pie time — it's hard to get too riled up with a giant slice of pumpkin pie and a snowball-size mound of whipped cream on your lap.

More from Mind

R29 Original Series