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ARTICLE: Disagreement Doesn’t Have to Be Divisive


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source: hbr.org

When someone has a sharply different point of view than our own, we naturally tend toward unproductive approaches: either avoid a conversation with that person or to try to convince them they are wrong. On social media and in real life, we regularly find ourselves engaging with people whose core beliefs and values seem to clash with our own. Disagreements about political or personal beliefs often degenerate into heated arguments.


Research shows there is a better way to engage: using conversational receptiveness in our language, which signals that we are truly interested in a new perspective. This behavior can be both learned and improved. A well-functioning organization requires employees and leaders alike to have productive conversations, especially in the face of different views and opinions. Easier said than done? Of course. Understanding the root causes may help.


The reason many of us naturally try to dodge potentially contentious discussions is people often prefer to engage in conversations with those who will confirm their beliefs rather than disagree with them, because we inaccurately predict how we’ll feel in such conversations. When we do engage with people whose views clash with ours, we typically try to convince them to abandon their point of view in favor of ours because we assume we’re right and they’re wrong—we fight for our perspective and try to “win” the argument. The problem is that the other side is likely to think exactly the same way. This approach backfires, leaving us with even more difficult conflicts to work through.


A more effective approach is being conversationally receptive. Research shows that when we appear receptive to listening to and respecting others’ opposing positions, they find our arguments to be more persuasive. Receptive language is also contagious: It makes those with whom we disagree more receptive in return. It makes us more likable, and others more interested in partnering with us when they seem receptive.


Research helped identify four strategies that can help us leverage conversational receptiveness in even the most heated disagreements and politicized conversations:


  1. Acknowledge the other person’s perspective. Say “I understand that …” or “I believe what you’re saying is…” or “thank you, because…” to show that you are engaged in the conversation and find value in and even trust their perspective. This also makes it less likely that someone will interpret the counter argument as a personal insult. Acknowledgment does not mean agreeing with what the other person is saying or thinking, but it shows that we listened and understood that there is a different perspective presented.

  2. Hedge your claims. In subtle and not-so-subtle ways, our society conveys the message that we should be strong and confident and express our views in a direct, forceful way. Assertiveness and extraversion are prized, while humility is shameful. Indicating some uncertainty about our claims (hedging), or the possibility we could be off-base in our views signals receptiveness and is likely to be better received.

  3. Phrase your arguments in positive terms. You might say, “Let’s consider the possible benefits of having fewer people working on the marketing initiative” rather than “We should not have any more people working on the marketing initiative.” The latter sounds definite and negative in tone, signaling that the speaker is not open to the possibility of further discussion or other perspectives.

  4. Point to areas of agreement, even if small or obvious. When in conflict, it’s easy to focus on all the ways we disagree, become defensive, and stop listening to the other side altogether. But multiple studies find that even when people passionately disagree, they usually have some shared values or common beliefs that can bring them together. Identify those values and beliefs and highlight them in the conversation.

By using these four strategies in our communication, we’ll be able to engage in even the most heated conversations more productively. It is possible for people with polar-opposite points of view to have a constructive conversation and bridge our divides. Read the full hbr.org article here.

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