How to Have a Conversation When You Don’t Agree With Someone, According to Psychologist Dr. Laurie Santos
As much as we may want to, the chances of crossing paths with people you only agree with are very slim. And in this day and age, maybe more so, according to Dr. Laurie Santos, a cognitive scientist, and Professor of Psychology at Yale University. “There’s a lot of features of the modern environment that make it easy to have more political divisiveness than we’ve had before,” Dr. Santos says. “First of all, we’re not connecting in person with people as much anymore. We’re often connecting with people in tiny sound bites, and via platforms that use algorithms to increase more outrage. This leads to a lot of us thinking there are a lot of people who really disagree with us, but in practice, these platforms and algorithms make those disagreements and that divisiveness looks worse than it even is.”
But there are ways to mitigate this divisiveness as Dr. Santos notes. How? By connecting, listening, and avoiding thinking of a person’s views as a caricature that you might expect in morally outrageous tweets. “There’s a lot of evidence that we often think the other side is more set in their ways or has more extreme views than ourselves.” Dr. Santos says. “This is a misconception as it can be easy to mischaracterize the views of the other side. But when you take time to really talk to someone, you often realize that their views are more nuanced than you think.” Read below for additional tips from Dr. Santos on what you can do when you don’t agree with someone.
Create a space for listening
As Dr. Santos explains, we’re often quick to assume we know what a person is thinking. But the fact of the matter is that more often than not, we don’t because we don’t take the time to listen to them. “Often we think and assume that we know what someone’s thinking,” Dr. Santos says. “We think we understand what somebody believes and that they don’t agree with us, but sometimes when you really hear people out, you can see there are many more points of agreement than you often expect.” The key here is to find a space where you can really communicate with somebody i.e. setting up a time to get a lunch where it’s known that you’re going to talk about things that you don’t agree with. When you do that, you’re making an active effort to listen in an open-minded environment.
Opt for perspective getting
We often think in terms of perspective-taking when we try to understand somebody’s perspective, but there’s a lot of evidence that perspective getting works a lot better, according to Dr. Santos. “Ask someone for their perspective. Let them tell you in their own words what they’re thinking, and really set up an opportunity so that you can really listen to what they’re saying,” she adds.
Ask the right questions
Asking the right questions can go a long way when it comes to having a conversation. “As you’re listening to somebody you don’t agree with, get really curious,” Dr. Santos says. “Try to set aside your values, and really try to ask them deep questions about why they came to the beliefs they have, and why it matters to them. This act of really carefully listening and perspective getting can be a powerful strategy for trying to better understand where someone’s coming from.”
Boost your compassion
There’s lots of evidence that practices like loving kindness meditation can allow you to increase the compassion and empathy you feel toward people generally, but also for people who might be difficult to get along with or who might have opinions that you don’t agree with, according to Dr. Santos. “A simple loving kindness meditation practice might allow you to think about people you really care about and wish those people well,” she says. “A typical loving kindness or metta meditation practice would start by thinking about and wishing well the people that are closest to you, or the people who are easy to share compassion with, and then working up to more difficult people.” Dr. Santos adds that loving kindness meditation can improve the ease with which we extend compassion to someone so it’s a nice technique if there’s somebody you disagree with, but want to understand a little bit better.
Find other values you do agree on
In certain situations, it’s best to agree to disagree. Dr. Santos follows this rule when it comes to her husband and avocados. “My husband is a wonderful human but he really doesn’t like avocados which I adore,” she says. “We can agree to disagree about avocados because there are other values we share with one another.” And that goes for other people as well.
“Keeping someone who you disagree with on one thing close can involve finding other domains and values that you ultimately agree on,” Dr. Santos adds. “That’s why a loving kindness meditation can be so important. It can allow you to see that at your core, everybody is just a person who’s trying to be happy, avoid harm, and avoid suffering. When you realize that we’re often more similar than we expect, you can get around some of the different views that can feel divisive.”
What are the benefits?
It’s no secret that social connection is really important for our well-being. When we feel disconnected from the people around us, such as a friend or family member who might have different beliefs, it can cause a lot of discomfort and take a toll on our mental health. “The more that we’re able to really connect and really understand the people around us, especially people we might not initially agree with, the more we can really work to improve our well-being,” Dr. Santos says.
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