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Let's agree to disagree: 6 tips for having a civil conversation

Two people engage in a civil conversation

By Elizabeth Exline

Dean Aslinia, PhD, has seen the highs and lows of human emotion during his counseling practice, which spans some 15 years, as well as his tenure as the associate dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at University of Phoenix. But when discussing the power of communication, one experience especially springs to mind.

He recalls seeing a couple where the husband demanded from his wife a yes or no answer to every question.

“He was like, ‘There isn’t a single question you ask me that doesn’t end in a yes or no. So, have you thought about anybody else while we’ve been married?’ And he kept asking her stuff like that,” Aslinia recalls.

This situation was problematic for a lot of reasons, but to move forward, Aslinia had to prove to the husband that life does indeed have gray areas. (Not to mention answers you’re sometimes better off not having.) His solution? To pose his own yes-or-no question to the husband.

“Long story short, he had to backtrack,” Aslinia says.

Marriage counseling is admittedly its own beast, but as anyone who’s tried to discuss race, politics or vaccines over the past few years knows, civilized conversation is a tricky art to master.

From online chat boards to school board meetings to dinner with friends, it seems every conversation is an opportunity for things to go south and fast. Saying “Let’s agree to disagree” feels almost quaint in this age of rage and recriminations.

So, how do we walk it back like the husband in the couple Aslinia counseled? It starts one conversation at a time.

Here, Aslinia and Sharon Johnson, PhD, CEO of Comtivate Leadership & Development and master trainer of leadership development programs at the U.S. Postal Service, share how to set up and enjoy a civilized convo, even (especially?) when you don’t agree with the other person.

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Read the room

It’s an obvious fact that bears repeating. What you can say and how you can say it depends on whom you’re talking to.

If you’re meeting a co-worker or a friend of a friend for the first time, you don’t have a lot of data points to go off of, so look for nonverbal cues. Do you get a tight smile when you make a political joke, or does the person lean in and laugh?

Actually, just stay away from politics and religion. (Another old-fashioned maxim worthy of resurrection.)

In more personal conversations, you have a better idea of what you can say to someone. “In those situations,” Aslinia says, “it becomes a matter of understanding if you’re there to persuade, come to an [agreement] or to vent.”

“Identifying that right off the bat can save a lot of heartache and headache for both parties,” Aslinia notes.

Also, is the person you’re talking with an emotionally intelligent person who can understand your feelings and connect with you on that level? Or is the person more of a black-and-white mindset?

Johnson puts a slightly different spin on it, noting that some conversations are directive (focused on identifying a problem and solving it) while others are developmental.

In the latter case, Johnson says you can provide feedback to someone by asking questions like, “This is what I’m hearing. Am I understanding?” and “What do you want to see happen.”

And if you don’t know where a conversation might take you, a good starting point might be simply saying, “I just need to be heard right now.” Aslinia says this kind of statement buys you time to unpack your thoughts and feelings before the other person chimes in.

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Set boundaries

For conversations that go beyond “I’m so frustrated,” Aslinia recommends setting some ground rules.

To start, identify the objective. Are you working through a colleague’s failure to meet expectations? A partner’s transgressions? Your uncle’s voting record?

Whatever the topic, determine what’s OK and what’s not.

For example, in a couple’s therapy session, Aslinia will recommend determining what the goal of a conversation is and then establish guardrails like not discussing other family members (e.g., no “your mama” comments) and no insults.

Outside the therapist’s office, boundaries might include no raised voices and no profanity. (And definitely no physical violence.) If tempers flare and these rules are broken, you can recommend returning to the conversation later, either in person when you’ve calmed down, or even by email or text.

After all, you can explain and forgive behavior, but some things simply can’t be unsaid.

As evidenced by an alarming number of public interactions, unestablished boundaries can lead to a lot of unpleasantness. “It’s usually harder to keep your mouth shut than to just jump in and regret it later,” Aslinia says. Self-awareness and self-control go a long way toward avoiding the sort of situations on planes, for instance, when two people with opposing viewpoints on the necessity of masks decide to engage.

For people who know and like each other, on the other hand, the road to productive conversations is paved with mutually agreed-upon guidelines for behavior as well as a common set of goals. Is the point to understand where each person is coming from? To find middle ground? Or to change the other person’s mind?

If it’s the last of these, Aslinia offers a helpful suggestion. “One of the questions I often ask my clients who have severe disagreements with no end in sight is, ‘Is it more important for you to win, or is it more important for you to be happy?’ Because sometimes those are exclusive.”

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If you can't stand the heat, cool off the kitchen

While it’s OK to feel whatever you feel, anger does tend to get in the way of productive conversation. So, how can you de-escalate what parents like to call “big feelings”? Aslinia says the trick is implementing a three-step process:

  1. Validate what the person is feeling. Saying things like, “I can see you’re really angry about this,” lets the person know you’re at least understanding what he or she is feeling.
  2. Establish limits. Follow up your observation with some basic boundaries, such as, “I’m not trying to start a fight,” or, “We can’t talk about this if you’re going to yell or throw low blows.”
  3. Offer an alternative. Suggest resuming the conversation later when everyone’s had a chance to simmer down. Or, as mentioned earlier, continue the dialogue through a digital medium like text or email.

If you’re the one who’s quick to anger, you have more opportunity to decide what happens next. Johnson recommends engaging in some self-talk in this situation. Contemplate what is triggering you, she suggests. Ask yourself questions like, “What can I do differently right now? How can I think differently?”

Learn to listen

Like any power couple, the better half of conversing is listening — and that doesn’t just mean waiting for your turn to speak.

“When you listen, listen to listen,” Johnson says. “Don’t insert yourself but try to understand where the other person’s pain is coming from. You might not be able to understand everything, but you can understand the pain point.”

Aslinia recommends channeling your inner counselor.

  1. Have empathy: You don’t need to sympathize. You do need to understand. 
  2. Cultivate respect: Having that “unconditional positive regard” for the other person, Aslinia says, helps you take the right tone in your conversation.
  3. Hold back the judgment: Undoubtedly the toughest of the three, practicing nonjudgment creates a safe space for speaking freely.

As you listen, look for what is not being said (subtext is a powerful thing!) as well as opportunities to ask thoughtful questions that will help you advance the conversation and not just your point.

Everyone communicates, Johnson says. Few actually connect. 

Try on tact

Honesty is noble, and editing is absolutely desirable in most conversations. (Witness Aslinia’s couple at the beginning of the article. Not everything has to be asked, said or answered.)

When hard truths do have to be delivered, however, the art of diplomacy can go a long way toward not just softening the blow but helping the other person understand you.

Johnson has worked at the Postal Service for nearly 30 years. While she is currently a leadership trainer, she remembers when she was newly promoted to the role of manager and not getting the results she wanted from her employees.

As she began her MBA program at University of Phoenix, this changed. She learned what she calls the law of buy-in: If you help people get what they want, she explains, you will get what you want.

Where she once impatiently waited for people to tell her their problems so she could fix them, she now actively listens and looks for ways to validate the other person’s feelings.

And when a situation requires the delivery of bad news, Johnson tempers it with good news first and uses empathy to share the difficult feedback. Thinking about how you’d like to hear it if you were the other person can create a good framework for delicacy.

Let it go

Like the ending of a favorite television series, there’s grace in knowing when to end a conversation.

“Recognize when the goal of the conversation has been achieved,” Aslinia explains. “There’s no point in beating a dead horse, because it’s not going to get you anything.”

Really, there’s nothing more to add.

Interested in learning more mind hacks? Check out our article on how to dump bad habits and start healthy new ones!

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