Holiday Season Special: How to Effectively Communicate Opposing Views with Loved Ones

Dr. Kimberly Fishbach

Learning to Communicate about Differing Viewpoints

Coming across someone with opposing views is inevitable, and oftentimes, uncomfortable. We have been taught to cope with the internal dissonance that arises by accepting that everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion and encouraged to listen to others with an open mind. When we realize the futility of our efforts to sway another’s perspective, we’ve learned to mitigate frustrations and preserve relationships by conceding with phrases such as “agree to disagree” and “to each his (or her) own.” 

However, it has become evident that these strategies are less effective in the context of more complex issues, such as our current public health crisis and political divide. Opinions are no longer treated as personal thoughts, but rather a reflection of one’s overall personality and moral compass; this results in heightened defensiveness, disappointment, anger, isolation, anxiety, and uncertainty about how to move forward in this unchartered territory of extreme judgment. Yet by acknowledging the uprise and dangers of dichotomous thinking, as well as being mindful of the psychology underlying people’s positions and behaviors (including our own), we can start taking steps towards more effective communication and a more peaceful existence despite our differences.

Why “Agree to Disagree” May No Longer Work in 2020

When two people amicably agree to disagree on something, it is usually because the rebutter’s final stance will have little to no impact on either party’s personal life moving forward. However, in the context of a crisis in which one’s behaviors can have detrimental effects on the well-being of others, agreeing to disagree is almost guaranteed to be met with resistance and judgment. The COVID-19 pandemic, combined with the politics that drive it, has pulled the American people into a dangerous black and white, ingroup-outgroup mentality.

We developed the misperception that we fall within one of two groups, both of which automatically deem its rivals complicit to all other ideations associated with its label.

Using our current milieu, Group 1 would encompass those who believe that the disease is worse than the cure and feel consumed by betrayal from people who won’t join in making the requested sacrifices necessary to benefit the whole; whereas Group 2 would consist of those who think the cure is worse than the disease and who are frustrated at the criticism received for exercising the freedom of personal choice within the confines of the control they currently hold onto. Given this stark dichotomization, there tends to be a lack of consideration for anything in-between these extreme characterizations; as such, feelings of disgust and contempt towards those on the other side, whom we once loved and respected, have taken center stage. So as loyalties, ethics, and priorities are seemingly tested without mercy or compassion, many of us feel pressure to distance ourselves from those who feel threatening to our survival or way of life, consequently making it more difficult to find our way back to each other. So it begs the question: how do we reunite?

How to Engage With Coworkers, Family, and Friends Who Have Opposing Views

Thus far, conversations about opposing views have focused on the hope that if we drive our point home strongly enough, we can change other people’s thoughts or behaviors. Unfortunately, in times like these, this approach will only cause more tension and further polarization. Therefore, when discussing COVID or politics with someone with opposing views, consider the following tactics:

  • Find common ground. Finding common ground is a great foundation for difficult conversations as it sparks an immediate connection between two people and increases empathy. Acknowledging mutual values and recognizing shared emotions, such as fear, stress, and exhaustion, also reminds us that we are all in this together. You might even question whether a political conversation is even something you both want to have in that moment. If so, identify what you both want to achieve by engaging at that time. 
  • Keep it personal. Instead of telling somebody why his or her opinions are wrong, talk about how you’ve been personally impacted and inquire empathetically as to how the other person has been impacted as well. Validating someone’s experiences and the complexity of certain issues, while demonstrating your own vulnerability, increases understanding on a deeper level and encourages a more open dialogue in which both parties can feel heard as opposed to attacked.
  • Monitor your body. Stay relaxed regardless of what the other person says or does. Body language is just as important as verbal cues and can make all the difference in the conversation’s tone and energy. Be mindful of your own emotional triggers and the way in which they can alter your breathing, cause muscle tightness, or influence your posture (e.g., a defensive stance, such as crossing your arms or legs).
  • Maintain reasonable expectations. Another way to regulate our emotions during these interactions is by preparing yourself for the likely possibility that you won’t change someone’s mind overnight. Changing long-held and deep-seated ideals and values is a process that requires time and patience, especially during a period when everyone is already on edge.
  • Take time to understand. Do not jump to conclusions, but rather, listen with openness and curiosity. Make sure you try to fully understand all factors that influence a person’s perspective (e.g., values, personal history, lifestyle, family, current mindset), as you may learn things that change your own presumptions. By approaching important discussions from a nonjudgmental, compassionate mindset, you may find that acceptance, positive emotions, and productive conversation occur more easily. 

How to Cope With the Overall Polarization of Our Country 

While you may now feel better prepared for the upcoming holidays, coping with the stress of the country’s polarization on a daily basis can feel like an ongoing battle. Be sure to replenish your emotional energy by setting boundaries (e.g., limit political conversations, choose which topics are off limits, reduce your consumption of media), allocating specific times to unplug and engage in self care, practicing mindfulness and compassion toward self and others, and most importantly, focusing on the aspects of life that you can actually control. 

Dr. Kimberly Fishbach is a Clinical Psychologist at NY Health Hypnosis & Integrative Therapy. To learn more about how mindfulness and hypnotherapy can help you or to make an appointment, please contact us here.

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