We all need to get better at disagreements

ILLUSTRATION: BRIAN STAUFFER
ILLUSTRATION: BRIAN STAUFFER

Summary

Plan ahead. Actively listen. And discuss how to move forward.

There are many tough talks we need to have right now, about everything from the Israel-Hamas war to how to care for Mom as she ages.

Too often, we’re avoiding those productive and necessary conversations. When we do have them, we end up yelling at each other. We can just look at the unrest on college campuses to see what happens when discourse melts down.

It’s time to master the art of disagreeing—having a productive conversation when we’re passionate about a topic but our opinions differ. Experts in conflict resolution have advice that can help: Plan ahead. Actively listen. Discuss how to move forward.

Dr. Thom Mayer geared himself up for a tough conversation recently. As the medical director for the NFL Players Association, he needed to tell an athlete who’d recently had knee surgery that he wasn’t ready to go back to playing.

To prepare, he imagined how the young man was feeling and rehearsed what he wanted to say.

Then he picked up the phone and spoke words you may want to memorize:

“Hello, I need your help," he said. “We are going to disagree, but we are going to have a discussion."

Conversations tend to become heated because we’re wired to have a fight-or-flight response when we feel threatened, especially during times of chronic stress, psychologists say.

“Our brains treat having our ideas attacked in the same way as if our body was being attacked," says David Supp-Montgomerie, an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Iowa, who directs the school’s Civic Dialogue Initiative.

What can we do?

It’s OK not to talk about a topic if you think the conversation won’t be productive. Sometimes that’s the best way to preserve the relationship.

But if you’re up for a tough discussion, here’s some advice.

Prepare yourself and start off right

Set a goal. Do you want to explain how you feel, understand the other person’s point of view, or solve a problem? “It’s important to understand why you want to have the conversation in the first place," says Supp-Montgomerie.

Practice your message. Write it down or rehearse it in front of the mirror in a calm tone of voice. Envision a positive outcome. That’s what athletes do.

When you begin the discussion, acknowledge up front that you may not agree but you want to talk so you can better understand each other.

Explain that you’d like to start by hearing the other person’s point of view. (Be sincere!) This defuses tension and shows that you’re on the same team.

Choose your words carefully. Use “I" instead of “you." (Think: “I feel unheard." Not: “You’re not listening.") The word “I" comes across as less judgmental.

And avoid the word “but." It negates what the other person said. Try the phrase “yes, and…" instead. Like this: “Yes, I agree with you, and…"

Actively listen—and ask questions

Stop waiting for someone to finish a sentence just so you can have your say. Don’t interrupt. Really listen.

Summarize what the person said and ask if you heard it correctly. For example: “I heard you say you’re upset because you think I haven’t been helping take care of Mom enough. Am I right?"

Then ask deeper questions that get at the person’s values, rather than opinions. Some good ones: “What led you to feel so strongly about this?" “Do you have personal experiences you can share?" “Will you tell me more?"

The goal is to find common ground, says Mylien Duong, a psychologist and senior director of research at the Constructive Dialogue Institute, a nonprofit that teaches people across the political spectrum how to talk to each other. “There are always points of agreement, even if it’s as simple as you both wanting the conversation to succeed."

Slow it down

If things get heated, take some deep breaths. Speak slower. Excuse yourself to grab a glass of water.

If you need a longer break, explain that the conversation isn’t going the way you’d hoped and ask to continue it later. Then offer to take some action to further educate yourself on the subject before your next conversation, suggests Fatimah Gilliam, a lawyer and author of “Race Rules: What Your Black Friend Won’t Tell You." This builds trust, she says.

Discuss your next steps

Ask the other person how he or she wants to move forward. And remember, it’s OK to agree to disagree.

If you learned something, say so. That’s both validating and reassuring, says Elizabeth Esrey, a professional mediator, who has worked with families, gang members and with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa after apartheid ended.

And thank the person for his or her willingness to talk.

“People are giving you the gift of their time even if they disagree with you," Esrey says.

Mayer, of the NFLPA, has developed strategies for difficult conversations. He practices his message, cuts to the chase quickly and listens closely.

“The goal is not to ‘win’ the conversation, but to communicate important, if difficult, information in a way the other person can process and be heard themselves," he says.

Before his talk with the injured player, who was hoping to get signed to a team, Mayer tried to imagine the pain of having a career-sidelining injury. He explained his point of view—that the player needed to take more time to recover—and listened patiently when the athlete argued with him. “You are a great person, but we have to stick to the science," Mayer says he replied.

The player took his advice, he says. And earlier this month, Mayer received a call from him with happy news: He’d recovered fully and signed to an NFL team.

Mayer says he thanked him for the difficult conversation.

Write to Elizabeth Bernstein at Elizabeth.Bernstein@wsj.com

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