By now, everyone’s experienced a wicked flame war on social media over political or ideological matters. Whether you’ve joined in the fray or just grabbed popcorn, you may have noticed that neither party ended up changing their minds. In fact, they may have instead ended their friendship!

Many consider arguing courteously a dying art. However, even in today’s polarized political climate, you can disagree gracefully. You may even change a few minds if you approach arguments the right way.

Arguments and identity politics

Arguing effectively includes listening and remaining open to your opponent’s point of view. However, today’s adversarial political climate has caused many people to consider certain stances or ideological beliefs an integral part of a person’s identity.

As a result, when someone disagrees with our position, it can feel like a personal attack. When we feel personally attacked, we become defensive. Defensiveness makes us shut down, rendering open-mindedness impossible.

The first step in arguing effectively involves the ability to separate our sense of self from the substance of the disagreement, so that we can truly hear what our opponent says about the issue. In addition, most people prefer to shun disagreements. Our sense of identity politics makes us sensitive to not offending others. Simply nodding in acquiescence or avoiding the matter altogether seems safer than stating that we disagree.

But when we do this, we become an inauthentic version of ourselves, and others perceive us as fake or wishy-washy. Disagreeing respectfully actually strengthens relationships, because we accurately represent what we truly believe, which builds trust. Furthermore, avoiding disagreements at all costs stifles growth. No meaningful change comes from avoiding conflict.

Imagine what the world would be like had the Wright Brothers decided to simply agree with the majority’s conclusion that human flight was impossible. Few of us could enjoy an overseas vacation if we all still travelled by boat!

Healthy disagreement benefits human growth because it opens our eyes to new ways of thinking and viewing the world. So why do so many of us either avoid a good, old-fashioned debate or end up unfriending those with different points of view?

Cognitive dissonance

Cognitive dissonance refers to the feeling of intense discomfort we experience when someone challenges our preconceived ideas about the world. This driving psychological force compels us to react defensively to protect our own worldview.

Sometimes, cognitive dissonance can lead to positive outcomes. For example, had the early colonists not clung to the view of no taxation without representation, the United States may not exist as it does.

For the most part, however, cognitive dissonance makes it difficult to change our attitudes and behaviours as we seek to maintain inner harmony by clinging to our strongly held beliefs. For example, despite overwhelming evidence of the health hazards, many smokers refuse to quit, believing that lung cancer will probably never happen to them.

We can overcome cognitive dissonance in one of three ways:

  • Changing the belief
  • Adding new evidence to supersede the held belief
  • Reducing the importance of that belief to our sense of identity

The trick? Presenting ideas in a way that will make others comfortable with sharing their own point of view constructively.

Argument tactics to avoid

The Dalai Lama and Barack Obama converse - Identity politics

The most important thing we can do to argue effectively is to avoid personal attacks. Oftentimes, when someone takes an opposing viewpoint on controversial issues, we denigrate our opponent’s stance as immoral, even evil. This process makes our opponent more combative, as they perceive us as saying that they lack moral values.

Instead, practice saying these words: “I may not agree with your opinion right now, but I’m willing to hear you out.” This stance immediately calms your opponent, which leads them to explain their point of view in a peaceful, rational matter—not as a hostile diatribe.

The second key? Keep an open mind, and avoid interrupting! Finally, educate yourself on identity politics and cognitive dissonance, and become aware of your own preconceived worldview.

How to use disagreements to persuade effectively

Even though keeping an open mind and listening shows that you respect your opponent’s point of view, how can you convince them that your point of view also has merit? First, understand that you don’t always have to persuade the other person about anything. Agreeing to disagree can work!

Understand that you don’t always have to persuade the other person about anything. Agreeing to disagree can work!

But let’s say you’ve slaved over an important proposal at work, and now you need to convince your team to implement your plan. You know they despise change, and carrying out your proposal will bring several procedural adjustments to department policy. Instead of starting with why your proposal will make things easier, open with an agreeable statement addressing this fear of change.

For example, you could begin with, “I know we all feel comfortable with our current procedures and that arbitrary changes leave us feeling like we need to comply with things we find silly. However, by implementing a few small adjustments to current policy, we can all enjoy working smarter, not harder, all the while increasing our revenue by 5 percent.”

Will your coworkers suddenly like the proposed changes? Not necessarily, but they’ll be more likely to embrace them once you assure them you’ve considered their fears in your decision-making, and that the proposed adjustments aren’t uninformed.

Putting it all together

Arguing improperly in our polarized world leads to broken relationships and hard feelings. This situation can drive many of us to avoid conflict altogether. But by learning to disagree effectively and graciously, we can gently persuade people to understand our point of view and broaden our own outlook in the process.

Keep talking, keep discussing—in fact, give it a try today, if you haven’t recently! 

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image 1: Pixabay; image 2: Pixabay