Conversations between people who disagree

Conversations between people who disagree with each other can be really difficult. They can also be tremendously valuable.

One reason that it’s hard is that it takes two to have a conversation.

Each person has to be prepared to listen to the other and be prepared to think about what they have to say. Each person has to respect the right of the other person to think for themself, and be prepared to accept the possibility that they will not be persuaded.

Without mutual willingness to listen and think, it’s not really a conversation. It’s just somebody (or multiple people) presenting demands. (There’s a time and a place for presenting demands, but they don’t generally lead to good conversations.)

Another difficulty in conversation between people who disagree is that some opinions can hurt to hear even if someone is expressing them completely civilly. This can be confusing in two directions:

It can be easy to think that someone is being mean when they’re not. If someone’s opinion hurts to hear, it can feel like cruelty even when they’re being completely civil.

What to do about this varies. Sometimes the right thing is to bear the pain for the sake of listening and learning. Sometimes the right thing is deciding that you’re not ready to hear this yet. Or any number of other possibilities. But it’s always important when this happens to recognize that it’s not the other person’s fault that the concept hurts to think about.

At the same time — it can be easy to make this mistake in the other direction. Sometimes people you disagree with are jerks. Sometimes, when you really want to be open to other opinions, it can end up being hard to tell that people are being mean. (And hard to remember that you don’t have to talk to mean people in order to be receptive to disagreement). Blaming yourself for someone else’s decision to be mean to you won’t lead to good conversations either.

I think it’s really important to learn to tell the difference, in both directions. I think important questions to ask are:

  • Do I feel ok about having a conversation with someone who disagrees with me on this topic right now?
  • Am I willing to listen to this person?
  • Am I willing to explain my views in a way this person can understand?
  • Does this person seem to be willing to listen to me?
  • Do they seem to be willing to explain their views in a way I can understand?

If the answers to any of those questions are no, it’s probably not going to be a very productive conversation. In some situations, it’s possible to fix this by changing your attitude and deciding to hear someone out. (And sometimes trying that is a really bad idea.) Often, the best thing to do is either find a new topic or a different person to discuss the topic with.

All of the skills involved in having conversations with people you disagree with get easier with practice. It gets easier to find disagreement bearable. It gets easier to tell the difference between people being mean and people expressing a difficult opinion. It gets easier to listen. It gets easier to tell when people are listening. It gets easier to explain things in a way that can be understood. It gets easier to learn from others.

These skills can be hard to acquire — and they’re really, really worth it.

Conversations get better when you focus on the conversations that you can have productively — and the range of possible conversations gets broader as your skills get better.

tl;dr Discussing ideas you disagree with with people you disagree with is hard for a number of reasons. It’s also really worthwhile. Part of having good conversations is finding contexts in which they can happen productively. It gets easier with practice.